The Corner

McConnell Shrugged; Reagan Smiled

Mitch McConnell delivered an important talk last week at an AEI conference. Talking about how Republicans and conservatives can better appeal to the middle class, he swerved from talking about policy to politely diss Ayn Rand. “And yet, I think it must also be admitted that in our rush to defend the American entrepreneur from the daily depredations of an administration that seems to view any profit-making enterprise with deep suspicion — that we have often lost sight of the fact that our average voter is not John Galt. It’s a good impulse, to be sure. But for most Americans, whose daily concerns revolve around aging parents, long commutes, shrinking budgets, and obscenely high tuition bills, these hymns to entrepreneurialism are, as a practical matter, largely irrelevant. And the audience for them is probably a lot smaller than we think. So I do think we’d do well as a party to get down to the basics. As Mona Charen recently put it, ‘Less talk of job creators and more talk of job-earners would be welcome.’” (emphasis added).

I’ve argued for this for a long time, and I’m glad to see the senator agrees. But I’d like to take this one step further.  

Ronald Reagan remains the most successful conservative politician in the last hundred years, so I thought it might be a good idea to see how he talked about job creation and the economy. I went back and read all of his major speeches on the economy during the difficult recessions and stagflation of the early 1980s, ending with his nationally televised address to rally support for the signature tax-cut bill. The contrast with today’s conservative politicians could not be more stark.

Reagan almost always referred to job creation as something we all did, not something that was the province of the elite few. His speeches did not emphasize, as Romney’s did or as Senator Ted Cruz’s still do, the role of the entrepreneur in creating jobs. He celebrated the effort, thrift, and ingenuity of the American worker, not the American boss.

Indeed, he only refers to entrepreneurs once in the whole collection of speeches, and how he does so is illuminating. It’s in a passage from his First Inaugural Address:  

We have every right to dream heroic dreams. Those who say that we’re in a time when there are not heroes, they just don’t know where to look. You can see heroes every day going in and out of factory gates. Others, a handful in number, produce enough food to feed all of us and then the world beyond. You meet heroes across a counter, and they’re on both sides of that counter. There are entrepreneurs with faith in themselves and faith in an idea who create new jobs, new wealth and opportunity. They’re individuals and families whose taxes support the government and whose voluntary gifts support church, charity, culture, art, and education. Their patriotism is quiet, but deep. Their values sustain our national life.

Now, I have used the words “they” and “their” in speaking of these heroes. I could say “you” and “your,” because I’m addressing the heroes of whom I speak — you, the citizens of this blessed land.

For Reagan, the entrepreneur was simply another type of citizen, another average Joe. He or she is not greater than us, someone upon whom we depend. He IS us, and our efforts in working are as noble and important as his in creating.

Reagan could say this because in the depths of his soul he believed in the promise of American life, the promise laid out in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” He believed in this ideal so much that he left a version of it for his admirers to read as his final intellectual legacy on his tombstone. “I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will eventually triumph, and there is purpose and worth to each and every life.”

This simple message is more important than all the wordsmithing, messaging, and dial testing in the world. The conservative politician who can sincerely believe that will find the words that will once again attract Americans to our cause.

— Henry Olsen is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. 

Henry OlsenMr. Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, an editor at UnHerd.com, and the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism.

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