Answering Reagan’s Challenge

Remarks at the Reagan Ranch

Aug 13 2014

Reagan Ranch Speech

It is more than an honor to be with you here today. For a conservative politician, speaking at Rancho del Cielo is like a musician playing a set at Sun Records or a ballplayer taking the field at Fenway Park. 

I am humbled by the opportunity.

My first real exposure to the Reagan Administration occurred when I was about ten years old.  My father, the late Rex E. Lee, served as the Solicitor General of the United States during President Reagan’s first term in office.  It is the job of the Solicitor General to serve as the federal government’s advocate before the U.S. Supreme Court.  Like every lawyer, the Solicitor General has a client—it’s the federal government, and specifically the presidential administration in power.  As a practical matter, that meant that my dad was President Ronald Reagan’s voice in the Supreme Court.

When my dad was nominated by President Reagan and was confirmed by the Senate, my family made a move from our familiar surroundings in Provo, Utah to McLean, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C.  When school started in the fall of 1981, I was full of apprehension, and with good reason.  The D.C. area somehow didn’t seem nearly as friendly as Provo.  I felt like an outsider at my new school.  And I was.  

I tried to take some comfort in knowing that my dad was doing exciting things for the country as a key official in the Reagan Administration, which (even as a ten-year-old) I understood would be historic. 

I still remember when my dad was getting ready to make his first appearance before the Supreme Court as President Reagan’s Solicitor General.  He readied his “morning suit,” the ceremonial uniform traditionally worn by the Solicitor General in the Supreme Court; it consists of a long-tailed coat and striped pants.  While embarrassed at the mere thought of my dad appearing in public dressed like that, I was intrigued by his new job and wildly curious about what went on in the highest Court in the land.

Although I didn’t understand everything that went on in the Court, I loved to watch my dad argue there, advancing the official positions of the Reagan Administration on important issues involving the Constitution and the role of the federal government.  What I learned most of all, perhaps, is that there is a cadence and a rhythm to being a good advocate for good government. 

 Just as there is a familiar cadence among skilled lawyers, there is also a familiar cadence to conservatism.  No one understood that cadence better or mastered it more completely than Ronald Reagan.  He had the cadence of confidence.  He had the cadence of courage.  He had the cadence of compassion. 

The next time you place a call to the Reagan Ranch, you should hope to be put on hold.  If you are lucky enough to have that happen to you, you will hear that confident cadence of courage in the voice of Ronald Reagan.  It is my hope that today and moving forward, those of us who honor his legacy will not just talk about him, but listen to him, and do our best to learn from and ultimately act like him.

For all Americans – but for conservatives and Republicans in particular - the legacy of Ronald Reagan will always serve as an inspiration. But it should also serve as a challenge.

It’s that part – Reagan’s enduring challenge to the movement and the party and the nation he revived – that I’d like to discuss today.

As you know, this is the 33rd anniversary of President Reagan’s signing of the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981.

Today, conservatives tend to think of that moment as the beginning of Reagan’s – and the country’s - triumphant era, which would eventually usher in the longest peacetime recovery in American history, victory in the Cold War abroad, and the restoration of the American Dream at home. 

Twenty million new jobs. A forty-nine-state landslide. “Tear down this wall.” “Shining city on a hill.”  Cadence and courage.

That’s the Reagan conservatives all remember and revere. But I submit that is not the only Reagan conservatives need to study and emulate most today.

The obvious achievements following August 1981 provide a showcase of what we can learn from our 40th president.  But some of the most important lessons we can take are from Reagan’s hard and heroic work leading up to his electoral victory in 1980.

The four-year stretch between 1976 and 1980 was a time similar to our own. The unemployment rate was coming down, but still too high. The economy was recovering, but not enough to restore broad prosperity. Energy dysfunction, rising prices and an unfair tax system were eating up what gains working families did see in their take-home pay.

But it wasn’t just about statistics. Humiliating failures of leadership at home and abroad throughout the previous decade had taken their toll as well. A psychological pall was descending on the country, leaving Americans uncharacteristically anxious and pessimistic. When grinding stagflation steered us toward yet another recession, many Americans began to wonder if our best days had come and gone.

It was in that time, in my view, that Reagan did perhaps the most important work of his career.

Ronald Reagan in the late 1970s was a prominent figure, but not a powerful one. He was no longer governor. His primary challenge against a sitting president of his own party had failed, and made him a pariah among a resentful Republican Establishment in Washington.

And the conservative movement he led was once again in the political wilderness.

The situation was bleak. But, as always, where others saw obstacles, Reagan saw opportunities.

He saw what too many in Washington did not: that a disconnect had opened between the American people and their leaders. President Carter’s approval rating fell into the 30s, and Congress’s into the 20s.

The Republican establishment – timid and unimaginative by nature - hoped the Democrats’ unpopularity might allow Republicans to win a few elections by default.

But this status-quo strategy did not interest Reagan.

Reagan wanted to build a new Republican Party, a new majority coalition, a new conservative movement that would not just cut across party lines... but permanently redraw them.

Reagan noticed that, aside from America’s political and economic elite, the rest of the country suffered under increasingly liberal policies. The political, corporate, and media opinion leaders were doing just fine. The people shouldering the brunt of big government’s failure were the working men and women of and aspiring to America’s middle class.

They were the ones whose neighborhoods saw rising crime rates. They were the ones whose communities were threatened by family breakdown. They were the ones whose jobs were hanging by a thread. They were the ones whose children couldn’t to go to college, whose sons and brothers came back from Vietnam only to be insulted by those they had fought to protect.

They were the ones who couldn’t afford gas and groceries because of the energy crisis and inflation.

Unlike the poor, who attracted Washington’s sympathy, and the rich, who could influence public policy, the mass of Americans in the middle were being ignored, slighted, and left behind by the political class in Washington.

The 19th century economist William Graham Sumner had a term for the American caught in the middle: “the forgotten man.”

As Sumner put it in his famous essay of the same name:

“[The forgotten man] works, he votes, generally he prays-- but he always pays--yes, above all, he pays... his name never gets into the newspaper except when he gets married or dies... He is strongly patriotic. He is wanted, whenever, in his little circle, there is work to be done or counsel to be given... All the burdens fall on him, or on her, for ... the Forgotten Man is not seldom a woman.” 

It was these familiar friends and neighbors from all races and creeds and regions - people all Americans know and most Americans are - that Ronald Reagan believed made our nation good and great and beautiful. They were the ones, Reagan understood, conservatism could help the most. 

Indeed, in a National Review essay a month after the 1964 election - before his name was ever on a ballot - Reagan reminded a defeated conservative movement:

[QUOTE] “We represent the forgotten American-that simple soul who goes to work, bucks for a raise, takes out insurance, pays for his kids’ schooling, contributes to his church and charity and knows there just ‘ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.’” [UNQUOTE]

To Ronald Reagan, these Americans were never forgotten.

From the beginning, he built his politics around a profound respect for the honest, hardworking men and women who made America work.

Many of these Americans, like Reagan himself,  believed government should stand on the side of the little guy against unfair concentrations of political and economic power.

They still believed that. And so did Reagan. 

It’s just that by the late 1970s, the Democratic Party’s leadership in Washington had gone Washington. The New Left did not oppose, but had come to enjoy, the unfair privileges of concentrated power. The ruling class in Washington not only ignored working families’ interests, but openly disparaged their values.

Now, Reagan knew that while middle class Americans were disillusioned with Washington Democrats, they were equally suspicious of Washington Republicans—with good reason. Liberalism may have been failing, but to many Americans in the late 1970s, conservatism was at best a cobwebbed theory.

Reagan needed a way to transform this anti-liberal majority into a pro-conservative majority.

He didn’t want to spin them, or play on their fears. He respected them: he wanted actually to persuade them.

He knew that abstract theories and negative attacks weren’t going to cut it. Reagan needed to make conservatism new, real, and relevant.

He rebuilt conservatism with a concrete agenda of innovative reforms to directly help and empower all of the forgotten Americans whom liberalism always leaves behind.

He advocated marginal tax-rate reduction.  This, Reagan correctly promised, would allow workers to keep more of their own income, raise wages, and create new jobs.

He advocated a strong dollar.  This, Reagan correctly promised, would help us gain control over the inflation that was gnawing away at middle-class wages, savings, and aspirations.

And he advocated an aggressive defense build-up.  This, Reagain correctly promised, would help us expose and defeat an aggressive, atheistic, and violent empire that threatened the life of every American, and the future of every child.

So often, Reagan’s success is chalked up to his personal attributes - his charm, his humor, his political and communication skills. He had all those things when he ran for president the first time.  But alas, those personal attributes alone were not enough. 

We must always remember that in 1976, conservatives found a leader for the ages... but they still lost. By 1980, they had forged an agenda for their time, and only thenwith an agenda and a messenger for that agenda—did they win. 

Armed with this agenda, Reagan not only confronted liberalism head-on, he also connected with those long-forgotten Americans by aligning his movement, his party, and his message around them.

It’s time for us to do it again.

The similarities between the late 1970s and today seem to grow by the hour. 

Now, as then, our economy is struggling. The great American middle class is beset with anxiety. Stagnant wages don’t keep up with the rising cost of living. For too many Americans, opportunities seem to be narrowing, and the American Dream seems to be slipping out of reach.

Meanwhile, a chasm of distrust is opening between the American people and their government. Both parties are seen as incapable of producing innovative solutions to growing problems, or uninterested in even trying. Reagan’s “forgotten Americans” are once again being left behind.

Once again, the Left has betrayed the trust of the American people. But the Right has not won it back.

So it seems to me that conservatives today need to do what Reagan did in the late 1970s: identify the great challenges holding back America’s working families, and propose concrete, innovative solutions to help overcome them.

Just like Reagan did, as conservatives today we need to re-apply our principles to the challenges of the moment. We need to offer the country a new, positive reform agenda that remembers America’s forgotten families and puts the federal government back on their side.

A real conservative reform agenda has to do more than just cut big government. It has to fix broken government. Reagan did just that a generation ago. Since then, new challenges have emerged, demanding repair – and conservative principles can once again point us toward exciting, innovative solutions.

I find it interesting that most Americans feel forgotten, left out of the debate, left behind in their efforts to get ahead, while shouldering the burdens of failed policies, without a voice in what matters most. The ironic part of having a podium and a microphone is that most Americans want someone in Washington not to speak to them, but to listen to them.  “Fix it,” they say.  “Turn it around,” they demand.  “Will government ever work for me, or will I always be working for it?” 

Reagan listened to the forgotten and the disillusioned American.  Can we be our best?  I know that we can at least be better.  Congress can do better.  We can expect more out of our leaders, more out of ourselves.  We can fix, cut, and tear down walls that confine our liberty—in any era.  We can expect more.  We can expect reform.   

Let me give you a few examples.

A conservative reform agenda needs to reduce taxes for families.  Today, marginal tax rates are much lower than they were in August 1981. They are so low that almost half of all households pay no income tax. But most working families are still overtaxed, some by thousands of dollars a year. How? Because of the hidden double tax the current system imposes on parents through the payroll tax to fund our senior entitlement programs.

Many tax-reform plans today ignore this problem, and would actually raise taxes on working parents.

For single parents, this might as well be a “Keep Out” sign on the front door of the middle class. It’s an unfair attack on individuals, families, and neighborhoods – forcing them to make decisions based on what government wants instead of what they want.

Conservative tax reform today needs to fix this unfair parent tax penalty, to level the playing field for the hardworking families raising the next generation of Americans.

A conservative reform agenda also needs to spur economic growth.

New jobs come from new businesses. But all the taxes and regulations government foists on the economy actually hurt newer, smaller businesses and help large, politically connected corporations, which can afford all the lawyers and lobbyists to comply with all the rules. People who fear that the economy is rigged today are right. It is, and government rigs it.

Today in Washington, economic policy is driven by a corrupt alliance of big government and big business conspiring to keep out the new, disruptive competitors that innovate, transform, and create new jobs and growth.

True conservative reform should level the playing field for all businesses – small and large, new and old. That’s where new jobs, innovation, and growth come from – from Main Street, not Wall Street, K Street, and Pennsylvania Avenue.

Look at our nation’s infrastructure. America needs more highways, more bridges, more local transit. But the old federal transportation trust fund is now permanently insolvent because 20% of the money it takes in is skimmed right off the top by special interests, bureaucracy, and inefficiency.

Real conservative transportation reform could cut out those Beltway middle-men. We need to create a 21st-century, open-source transportation network of sustainable, local innovation that empowers America’s diversity and ingenuity.

Another example is our broken higher-education system.

Today, the exploding costs of and restricted access to college are leaving millions of workers without the skills to succeed in the global economy. Millions more are being saddled with more debt than they’ll ever be able to repay.

Washington sees this structural dysfunction, and immediately launches into an argument about... the interest rate on student loans. We shouldn’t be arguing about tenths-of-a-percent on $40,000 tuition – we should be fixing the system so college doesn’t cost so much in the first place. And we need to increase access to new schools that can accommodate the needs of non-traditional students, like single parents, who can’t afford to study full time.

A conservative reform agenda must confront a welfare system that isolates the less fortunate.  A reformed system would start to bring the poor back into our economy and civil society.

Real welfare is not about dependency, but mobility – designed to make poverty temporary instead of just tolerable.

A conservative reform agenda must include plans for an energy revolution. Just look at what’s going on in North Dakota and Texas and elsewhere. Let it create all the jobs and opportunities and energy independence it can. Let all energy producers compete on a level playing field – new technologies and old, large businesses and small – with equal opportunity for all and cronyist subsidies and special treatment for none.

And finally, this approach shows us that we can’t just cut Obamacare, or even repeal it and go back to the old system we had before. Instead, we need to move forward with real healthcare reforms that empower patients and doctors, not big government and big insurance companies. 

Under the radar of the mainstream media and Beltway politics, the conservative reform agenda we need is starting to take shape.

As you can see, the content is different from Reagan’s agenda. But the goal is the same – reforming outdated policies to put government back to work for those forgotten Americans ... growing our economy and strengthening our society... and finally bringing the American Dream back into the reach of every American willing to work for it.

Like Reagan’s, the agenda I am describing is based on something too often missing in our politics today: respect for the American people.

As president, Ronald Reagan understood that the forgotten Americans were the people really in charge.  And they still are.

The people – not billionaires on Wall Street - are the customers who decided which products and services and businesses would rise and fall.

The people – not the activists and academics and celebrities – decide the values that guide our neighborhoods and define our culture.

And Ronald Reagan was okay with that. He celebrated it.

His agenda was designed to give ordinary Americans even more power to make those decisions. He respected them and trusted them, and thought the government should simply get out of the way.  He knew the answer was not to get America to trust Washington; it was to get Washington to trust America.

Today, some see it as ironic that as Reagan decentralized power to a diverse, divided nation... we came back together. But it’s not ironic at all. It’s the tried-and-true genius of the American way of life that has sustained our exceptional republic for more than two centuries.

Reagan’s agenda was an attempt to empower Americans to come together to make our economy more wealthy and our society more rich.

Reagan knew – and proved to a cynical elite – that freedom doesn’t mean you’re on your own; it means we’re all in this together.

And really, that is Ronald Reagan’s enduring challenge to conservatives, and Republicans, and all Americans: to believe in each other. To trust and respect the courage and industry and wisdom and ingenuity and compassion and hope of our people.

A renewed commitment to reform can not only put America on the path to recovery, but reunite our nation after too many years of bitter division... and empower our people after too many years of falling behind.

A new generation of problems demands a new agenda of solutions: to answer Reagan’s challenge, and to once again remember America’s forgotten families.   

Ronald Reagan signaled the cadence of courage from this spot 33 years ago.  It still echoes from these hills.  Today our duty is to answer the call. 

We must dare to be better.  Dare to look ahead past the next election, into the next decade and beyond.  Dare to make the changes today that will shape the America of the future. 

Enlist as 21st-Century Reagan revolutionaries.  See beyond the next eight years into the next 80.  Join me in taking the road less traveled.  We are the forgotten Americans who have new ideas, start businesses, start families, volunteer as room mothers and little-league coaches, we are the flag raisers, the builders, the workers and the inventors.  We are the dreamers and the stewards, we are the shopkeepers by day and the homemakers at days’ end. 

We are the people who James Madison, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, had in mind and Ronald Reagan did not forget.  We are the light emanating from the city on a hill; we are the keepers of the flame, the guardians of liberty. 

We are the people—the unassuming heroes marching forward in Reagan’s cadence of confidence in that quiet adventure we still call the American Dream.