I remember sitting with my grandfather in 1980, when I was just nine years old, and watching on TV as Ronald Reagan accepted the Republican nomination for President. While that was the first time I was really exposed to the Reagan Revolution, the movement’s foundations had been laid in a speech delivered before I was born, on October 27, 1964.
On that day, exactly a half-century ago, Reagan spoke in support of Barry Goldwater’s campaign for president in a speech titled “A Time for Choosing.” The address is often remembered as the breakout moment in Reagan’s political career, but in truth it was much more than that — it was the moment that sparked a movement that transformed America.
In the speech, Reagan warned of the dangers of a growing government and a shrinking private economy. He pointed to signs that he believed were indicative of a diminished future: an enormous tax burden, massive budget deficits, a rising debt limit, and a less-valuable dollar.
Though Goldwater lost that year, Reagan’s message continued to be validated in the years that followed. In his 1980 campaign, Reagan built on “A Time for Choosing” by taking the founding principles he had outlined and detailing exactly how to apply them to the challenges that had subsequently emerged. Once in the White House, he proved just how effective his conservative approach to government could be.
In the half century since that speech, some of the policy debates Reagan discussed have changed while others have not. But every single one of the principles he outlined is just as relevant today as in 1964. I believe the modern conservative movement can find its roots in that speech, but I also believe it can find its blueprint for the months and years ahead, starting with the election next week.
Republican candidates today have an opportunity — and an obligation — to do what Reagan did in 1964: explain exactly what makes America exceptional and exactly what will be required to keep her that way. First, this requires defending the principles of our founding, the same ones supported in “A Time for Choosing.” Second, it requires policy ideas that apply these principles to modern challenges.
America’s founding ideals can be applied in the 21st century just as easily as Reagan applied them in the 20th century, just not in the same way. Today, we need modern reforms that recognize modern realities: that our country now faces global competition for jobs, that technology has transformed the very nature of our economy, and that our policies and institutions have failed to adapt accordingly.
Modern conservative reforms will recognize that these realities cannot be addressed with government power, but rather through a government that empowers. If we give our people a government that helps rather than hinders, a free economy that promotes growth and opportunity, and a higher-education system that equips every American with the skills needed for modern jobs, our people will do what they’ve always done: dream, achieve, and leave behind a better America for their children.
That’s exactly what our parents and grandparents did in the last century, partly because of Reagan’s vision and leadership.
When I think back to watching the 1980 convention with Papá, I think of what Reagan’s message must have meant to him. My grandfather would always tell me that his own life had been limited by the circumstances of his birth, but that mine would be limitless because I was an American.
In “A Time for Choosing,” we can see that Reagan knew that sentiment to be true. He told the story of a Cuban refugee who was speaking with two other Americans about his life. One remarked to his friend with wonder, “We don’t know how lucky we are.” And the Cuban stopped and said, “How lucky you are? I had someplace to escape to!”
Reagan described the significance of the exchange by saying: “In that sentence he told us the entire story. If we lose freedom here, there’s no place to escape to. This is the last stand on earth.”
I’m not sure if my grandfather ever saw that speech, but if he did, I know he would have been moved by that story. He and Reagan agreed on what America represented to the world, and on what her destiny was in the 20th century.
This week as I reread that iconic speech from 50 years ago, I am reminded that our destiny is the same in this century as it was in the last, but that before we can achieve it, we must face our own “time for choosing.” And like our parents and grandparents before us, we must choose wisely.
— Marco Rubio is a Republican U.S. senator from Florida.