Happy Birthday, President Reagan

by Burt on February 6, 2013

No president of the 20th century had a more positive and enduring influence than Ronald Reagan, who was born 102 years ago today. Other presidents, from Wilson to FDR, exceeded Reagan in their impact, but much of it was negative. Sure, they won wars, but they almost destroyed the American economy as well.

Reagan, by contrast, won the Cold War and also revived the American economy from decades of abuse. He was successful both at home and abroad.

Since President Reagan left the White House in 1989, the U.S. has stumbled, so it is wise to ponder why Reagan did so well. Was it natural intelligence or careful political training? Not really—and that fact both galls and baffles his critics. Reagan was a C student at lowly Eureka College, and from there he went into small-town broadcasting, and then to Hollywood. He didn’t try to be governor of California until he was 55 years old.

Reagan had three parts to his genius. First, he was a visionary; he believed that people wanted freedom and would do well when more of it was given to them. Whether he was undermining the Soviets, challenging an unlawful union, or deregulating oil production he tried to move in a consistent direction of greater freedom and less government. According to Dinesh D’Souza, “Reagan’s greatness derives in large part from the fact that he was a visionary—a conceptualizer who was able to see the world differently from the way it was.” Reagan knew where he wanted to go: Jimmy Carter, by contrast, had multiple plans to create energy, to generate revenue, and to cut inflation. Often they were contradictory; all of them failed. Reagan was more consistent because he had vision: He knew where he wanted to go and how he wanted to get there.

Second, Reagan had character, and in the eyes of America’s Founders, character was a necessary ingredient for greatness. Reagan stood for a set of ideas, and when trouble came he looked not to polls, but instead he applied courage, kindness, and persistence to achieve his ends. At the end of his presidency, his critics—from Sam Donaldson to Ted Kennedy—admitted that Reagan had changed the world and had done so with candor and honesty.

Third, Reagan was teachable. That trait was essential. If one has vision and character, he must also be teachable to make his life flow in a constructive direction. Course corrections are needed because none of us has life figured out at age thirty. We have to believe in something, and we have force of character, but we also have to be ready to modify.

When Reagan reached adulthood in the 1930s, he supported FDR for president. Big government seemed to be an answer. But as Reagan grew older and worked with the public, he saw the tyranny of federal power. Also, he began to realize that no nation could spend its way into prosperity.

The Twenties were the prosperous decade of tax cuts, and the Thirties were the depressed decade of tax hikes. Reagan came to believe that connection was more than coincidence. When the U.S. economy went into to a tailspin in the 1970s, Reagan saw the price controls under Nixon and the restrictions on oil production under Carter as being problems, not solutions.

Free up the economy, Reagan argued, by cutting tax rates. In the midst of the Carter fiasco, during a radio show on October 18, 1977, Reagan pointed to history to give his countrymen lessons. “We’ve tried spending our way to prosperity for more than four decades and it hasn’t worked. . . . Twice in this century, in the 1920’s and in the early 60’s we cut taxes substantially and the stimulant to the economy was substantial and immediate.”

Reagan was teachable. He had modified his ideas, and he would use his vision and character to implement these tax cuts when he became president. Sure enough, he brought rates down for all taxpayers, and revenues to the government actually increased. This dose of freedom was somewhat expanded by capital gains cuts under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. From 1982 to 2007, the U.S. economy more than doubled in economic growth, and we led the world with an ever increasing standard of living and relatively low unemployment.

We owe the freedom and prosperity of those years to the vision, the character, and the teachable qualities of President Ronald Reagan.

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