June 08, 2004,
I am here today to confess one of my most embarrassing personal failings: I never cast a single vote for Ronald Reagan.
I was in high school when Reagan upset Gov. John Connelly in the 1980 South Carolina presidential primary and went on to crush southern homeboy Jimmy Carter that November.
But four years later, when it came time to cast my first vote for President of the United States and Leader of the Free World, I proudly marched into the polling booth and threw my support behind that towering figure of American greatness....uh...what's-his-name.
Oh, yeah. Mondale. That's the guy.
I didn't actually vote for Walter Mondale. Nobody did. I voted against Ronald Reagan. And I was against Reagan for the classic college student reason: Everyone I knew was voting for him.
My alma mater, Oral Roberts University, was such a bastion of conservative Republicanism that one campus poll showed Reagan with 98 percent of the vote. And half of the wayward two percent were planning to write-in Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. So anemic was Reagan's on-campus opposition that the handful of student Democrats asked me, a Republican, o be the president of the Young Democrats organization.
They asked me because there was a campus tradition every presidential election year to hold a debate between the presidents of the YDs and the CRs (College Republicans) and none of the Young Democrats was willing to stand up in such overwhelmingly hostile territory and challenge Reagan's reelection. "But," the head of the YDs told me when he offered me the job, "you don't care about being popular, Michael. Everyone already knows you're a jerk."
I think he meant that as a compliment.
So for a total of 24 hours, I was the elected president of the Young Democrats of Oral Roberts University. I stood on a platform in the Student Union building and took on the Blue Blazer Brigades of the College Republicans and, I'm told, acquitted myself well. When the final gavel sounded, I immediately resigned my leadership post of the Democrats and resumed my duties as Social Chairman of the Committee to Encourage Heavy Petting Among Evangelical Coeds.
However, I honestly believe today that when I stood in opposition to Ronald Reagan that day, I did so for the most Reaganesque of reasons: To fight the power. (That's my story and I'm sticking with it.)
I paid little attention to politics while in college, but at a gut level, I was troubled at the lack of opposition and dissent on a campus where political ideas and power were so overwhelmingly uniform. Power needs dissent, it needs to be confronted, even when it is power being used for good, because power breeds its own abuses.
Ronald Reagan understood that better than any political leader this side of Eastern Europe. Today, Reagan's classic quip that "The nine most dangerous words in the English language are 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help'" sounds benign, trite, obvious. But when I was a kid growing up in the 70s and early 80s, it was radical.
From the beginning of the Depression until the election of Ronald Reagan, America's default reaction to any problem, from nuclear weapons to nose-picking in the schools was "They [i.e., "the government"] ought to do something about that." And government, always happy for a reason to take more of our money and seize more control over our lives, said "Sure! You got it, baby. Groovy!" (Like I said, this was the 70s.)
Back then, any suggestion that all this accumulation of wealth and power by the government might be a bad thing was met with a blank stare or, worse, the assumption that you were a conspiracy kook or Ku Kluxxer. Meanwhile, government control of the economy through regulation and massive taxation (some people were paying 70 percent in federal income taxes alone) gave us sky-high inflation, interest rates, and unemployment.
Reagan didn't say "this government program is bad" or "that tax is harmful." No, he indicted all government. He indicted the very idea of government itself: "Government is not the solution, it's the problem."
He understood that collective action is almost always one of the worst ways to solve a problem, and government is, by nature, collective coercion. You make everyone do the same thing at the same time whether it makes sense or not. In 1970, Richard Nixon, one of the worst Republican presidents, actually imposed wage and price controls on the American economy. He thought the government should tell you how much to charge for the stuff you sold and whether or not you could have a raise.
Nixon's plan was, of course, a total disaster. Looking back, it seems beyond idiotic. The fact that most of America's political class thought this ridiculous government overreach made sense shows just how dramatic Reagan's revolution truly was. The greatness of Reaganism was to confront the American Establishment, knock their heads together and say "What the heck are you guys thinking?"
On those rare occasions when members of the Establishment knew what they were thinking, Reagan's challenge helped them think it more clearly. And on some issues, like environmental regulation, he eventually followed their lead. But on others taxation, the economy, the Cold War, Communism Reagan's willingness to walk into Washington and confront the powerful head-on revealed that, in fact, the Left had lost its vision long ago. The clear, liberal vision of FDR's fight for the "Four Freedoms" had faded into Jimmy Carter's sad malaise. Carter didn't lead America into a twilight of lost power and limited hopes. He just went along for the ride.
Reagan wasn't prepared to join the drift towards defeat. He challenged America's political leaders, confronted them. He made them abandon the quitter's question of "Why?" and answer the great American question the question with which America has always challenged the rest of the world: "Why not?"
Radio-talk-host Michael Graham is an NRO contributor.