Few men in modern times have changed American politics as significantly as did President Ronald Reagan, who died Saturday after a 10-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. In some ways his death at age 93 was a relief. There was something inordinately sad about seeing a man with such a sharp wit, and with such glorious memories, suffer so long from a disease that robbed him of his mind.
Yet nothing can rob him of his great contributions to America. Even many of his harshest critics have come to realize there was something very special about him, and about the way he practiced the art of politics. Those lessons are particularly strong for conservatives, and indeed his beloved Republican Party was permanently changed by his ascension to power. But even Democrats have learned much from a president known for his boundless optimism and faith in America.
Ronald Reagan was an advocate for a specific set of ideas. He did not aspire to the presidency to exert power for power’s sake, but to advance his principles of limited government and individual freedom. He did not always succeed in his goals. We did not always agree with the positions he took. At times his administration was embroiled in scandal. His ultimately successful goal of seeing the communist bloc tyrannies toppled without much violence came at the price of large budget deficits that conflicted with his promises of fiscal responsibility.
But these flaws only proved he was human. His real legacy was best described by his close ally, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. National Review online reprinted a 1988 article from Ms. Thatcher, which we excerpt here:
“On entering office, the president faced high interest rates, high inflation, sluggish growth, and a growing demand for self-destructive protectionism. These problems had created — and in turn were reinforced by — a feeling that not much could be done about them, that America faced inevitable decline in a new era of limits to growth, that the American dream was over … .
“Having restored the faith of the American people in themselves, the president set about liberating their energies and enterprise. He reduced the excessive burden of regulation, halted inflation, and first cut, and later, radically reformed taxation. When barriers to enterprise are removed and taxes cut to sensible levels …, people have the incentive to work harder and earn more.”
As Ms. Thatcher added, Mr. Reagan’s vision of freedom — one that echoed the vision of America’s founding fathers — was infectious. Other nations followed suit. It is important to note that removing barriers to economic growth, and recognizing that the government was the problem to most things, not the solution, was not simply about creating more wealth. Reagan’s vision was not, as his fiercest opponents insisted, about greed. It was about freedom. He wanted to not only provide material uplift but to allow individuals to make more of their own choices in this life.
It was that commitment to freedom that led him on his drive to shake up foreign relations. Rather than accept the standard of the time — that nothing could be done to change the standoff between the democratic West and the communist East — he challenged the totalitarian nations to tear down their wall, literally and figuratively. His defense build-up was controversial, but the goal was to push the communist world to adopt the ideals that promote human freedom.
Perhaps the most admirable aspect of Mr. Reagan’s political career was his willingness to confront the orthodoxies of his time. He challenged people to rethink their ideas and, as a result, convinced people to follow him. Today, so many politicians seem to have a finger in the wind. They listen to focus groups and monitor public-opinion polls so they can offer the public what the public wants to hear in order to get elected. By contrast, Mr. Reagan had a set of solid, firmly held beliefs, and he set about convincing the nation why they were the right beliefs. He actually changed minds and hearts, which is why there is a subset of voters that came to be known as Reagan Democrats. These were Democrats who consistently voted for this Republican president.