Eight lessons we can learn on the tenth anniversary of Reagan's death
1. You never appreciate what you’ve got until you lose it
At school in Britain in the Eighties - a private school, full of kids with the kind of parents who ought to have been four-square behind the Reagan revolution - I remember being about the only one there who didn’t fall for the "dumb cowboy" narrative..
Today, I think most educated people have come round (albeit some very grudgingly) to appreciating that Reagan was one of the all-time great US presidents and certainly far more impressive than any since. But at the time he was viewed through the same prism we use when looking at all politicians in currently in power: always but always they fall short of our hopes. (NB: I am definitely not suggesting that one day we will see the current presidency in a more favourable light: there are some tasks quite beyond the burnishing magic of history and nostalgia)
2. Every great cowboy needs a pardner
A pardner, note, not a lap dog. This was what was so excruciatingly embarrassing about David Cameron's Brokeback Mountain hot dog bromance at the basket ball game with President Obama. Here in Britain, we really don’t like that kind of fan-boy behaviour from our Prime Ministers towards any POTUS, especially not ones as thoroughly useless as the current one. We may love America and we cherish the Anglosphere, but we did once burn the White House.
What was great about Margaret Thatcher's alliance with Ronald Reagan was that it was genuinely a partnership of equals. This was good for our post-imperial self-esteem, but good for the US too. We both need our checks and balances.
3. Funny is money
In Hollywood comedians are revered above all. Reagan - a Hollywood graduate himself - instinctively understood this. With his twinkle-eyed, deadpan one-liners he achieved what the more po-faced kind of conservative finds almost impossible: he made the ideology of the right sound attractive, positive, caring.
Even if Reagan had achieved nothing of note in his presidency, he would still rate as one of the greats because of his aphorisms.
"One way to make sure crime doesn’t pay would be to let the government run it."
"The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I’m here to help.'"
Another Reagan aphorism: "Of the four wars in my lifetime, none came about because the US was too strong."
4. Speak softly and carry a big stick
Reagan was lucky, no doubt in his enemies. The Soviet Union - "the Evil Empire" - was a much more obvious, monolithic threat than any in existence today. It clearly needed dealing with and he dealt with it: not by provoking the Third World War many of us had feared all our lives, but by effectively bankrupting the Soviet empire into collapse, through measures like Star Wars and his ending of subsidised wheat.
But he knew what to do with smaller scale enemies too. Note how the Iranian hostage crisis ended, the moment Reagan replaced Carter. Compare and contrast, also, the relative performances of the Reagan and Obama administrations in Libya. Reagan - after the bombing of a nightclub in which US servicemen were killed - launched a punitive air-raid on Tripoli. Obama gave us the Benghazi shambles….
Reagan believed in smaller government and he led by example:
5. Less is more
"They say hard work never hurt anybody but I figure - why take the chance?"
and, to government employees: "Don't just do something. Stand there!"
It’s amazing, not to say hugely depressing, how few modern conservatives seem to grasp this point. When Labour recently criticised Cameron’s Coalition as a “Zombie government” because if its failure to promise sufficient new legislation, the Conservative party’s spin machine should have been all over it: “Yes! Exactly! Unlike socialists we actually believe in rolling back the state.” But the Conservatives said no such thing because, unfortunately, they too believe - as someone, whose name sadly escapes me, once said, that they are from the Government and they are here to help.
6. Damn the torpedos!
Reagan chose his administrators well. This a) allowed him to spend more time at his ranch and b) enabled him to play one off against the other when it came to formulating difficult policy decisions and reaching a considered a conclusion.
But there were times when the Gipper had to take control and exert his authority over those who - as civil servants will - tried water down his proposals or his rhetoric.
A classic example is his famous “Tear down this wall” speech, addressed to President Gorbachev in Berlin. The speech was written by the great Peter Robinson, who describes at Ricochet how Reagan’s staffers tried to censor it. (“A mediocre speech and a missed opportunity” commented one). But Reagan knew better. He restored the phrase which his aides had crossed out and delivered one of the most memorable speeches of his career.
7. We’ve got our work cut out
The dispiriting but sadly inescapable truth about the Reagan presidency is that for all the man’s genius, not even he really succeeded in rolling back the frontiers of the state. All he really did - as this Cato Institute paper shows in more detail - is stop the state advancing as terrifyingly rapidly as it would have done had a lesser president been in charge.
This is less a reflection on Reagan than it is on the system. The problem, explains Cato’s John Samples, is this:
Oh - and for “American government”, see also “every other Western government”
Reagan failed to radically cut back the federal establishment because American government is biased against big changes. All three branches of government must agree to changes in the status quo. The most crucial parts of Reagan’s coalition in Congress had programs to protect. Conservative Democrats were willing to cut government spending except for farm subsidies, water projects, and the military. Liberal Republicans supported cuts except in transportation, fuel assistance, and education. Reagan’s difficulties in Congress also reflected what might be called “the political strategy of the welfare state.” Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson both expected that programs once enacted would attract support and grow over time for two reasons. First, those who benefit from such spending are organized and motivated to protect it. Second, entitlement programs create an expectation that future benefits are earned by past contributions. Moreover, much of the general public also adapts to the increased government as time passes; what an earlier generation would have deemed tyranny, their grandchildren see as part of the status quo.
At the end of the Eighties, after The Smiths broke up having released just four studio albums, those of us who were fans spent many years pining for their loss and longing for the new Smiths to emerge.
8. There will never be another The Smiths. But...
But the new Smiths never came. The same is true is that other great act of the Eighties, Reagan/Thatcher. We shall never see their like again - and it’s certainly true that all the acts that have followed so far (politically at least) seem like pygmies by comparison.
That doesn’t mean, though, that we should give up hope. After The Smiths came Nirvana, Radiohead, Fleet Foxes, Midlake, the entire genre of dance music, lots of good stuff actually.
One day something similar might happen with politics. We can but dream...