Wanted: The Reagan Courage

Ronald Reagan is rightly remembered for his fortitude in disposing of Soviet Russia in the Cold War, but perhaps the bravest decision of his presidency was not a matter of foreign policy.  When Reagan gave Fed Chairman Paul Volcker the full political backing necessary to wring inflation out of the U.S. economy, Reagan did the politically unthinkable: Intentionally cause an economic recession.[1]

To understand exactly how courageous this decision was, we must first examine the conditions under which Reagan was elected. Perhaps the most iconic image of the 1980 presidential campaign was the Gipper's devastating debate take-down of incumbent Jimmy Carter. "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" intoned a sober Reagan. "Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago?" The answer was no, America wasn't better off under Carter, and the Reagan-Bush ticket carried 44 of 50 states less than a week later.

What followed was a far cry from being "better off."  After the landslide victory was a recession that brought with it the highest unemployment in the postwar era.  The downturn came upon an already battered American workforce, who just one year earlier had come out of a recession.  The political fallout was a 27-seat Democratic gain in the House of Representatives in 1982 and the only time in the Reagan Presidency that his approval numbers dipped into the 30s, in 1983.

We look back at the early 80s inflation-slaying as a great achievement and obvious policy choice.  But in the moment, like any real-time decision, there were no foregone conclusions.  Reagan could have postponed the pain, much like President Obama did when decided to enact the bulk of ObamaCare only after his next election campaign.  Reagan could have found a Fed Chief willing to spread the inflation-curbing measures over a longer period, much like when Congress passed their most recent budget reductions.

These and scores of other less politically damaging options existed, each of which, if Reagan had chosen them, would have left the country worse off. According to the a figure in March 24, 1980 edition of Time, the inflation rate reached 18%[2] under Carter. At that rate, our dollars would halve in value every four years. Reagan realized America wouldn't survive under those conditions.  So he made the difficult decision.

Similarly tough conditions will confront the future GOP presidential nominee should he or she win the presidency.  So whom do we choose to face the challenge?

Voices from the Republican Establishment would have us take the safe route.  Karl Rove recently warned, "You don't want these candidates moving so Right in the Republican primary that it becomes impossible for them to win the general election" (a virtual echo of former President Gerald Ford's warning about Ronald Reagan in 1980: "A very conservative Republican cannot win in a national election").  To Rove and others who think like him, Obama has done such a poor job that the only excuse voters could possibly find to reelect him is if the Republicans nominate a noticeably conservative candidate.  Thus a less wave-making candidate would be superior.

Therein lies the difference between the Establishment's goals and conservatives' goals. The conservatives aren't satisfied by merely defeating Obama.  And while it's true that any member of the Republican field would be superior to Obama, better-than-Obama is a very low standard.

For example, the Republican budget negotiations this spring yielded a "better" result than what Obama wanted.  The same is true of the deal to raise the debt limit.  But neither action made any meaningful change to our country's suicidal financial trajectory.

Just as a modest upgrade to the nation's debt situation was unsuited for the seriousness of the time, so also a modest upgrade in the Oval Office will not be enough to save America from falling by the wayside.  The $1.3 trillion deficit, listless economy and pending ObamaCare entitlement change the game.  As author Mark Steyn has said, "we're looking at incredibly grim scenarios, not in 2050, 2070 and these other absurd CBO projections...but around 2015, 2017, 2018."

In other words, we've reached a point where -- for those fighting to preserve America as it was founded -- politically safe options are no longer viable.  To save America in 2012 will take the same gumption that it took to save America in 1981.  We need the Reagan Courage.

That political bravery must be requirement number one.  If we select a candidate without Reaganesque mettle, then we will, at best, tinker around the margins of catastrophe.

Walking the United States back from the brink is beyond the realm of technocratic expertise, clever campaign rhetoric or a sterling resume.  It will take a politically courageous president who makes difficult decisions.

Joseph Ashby is a contributor to Jonah Goldberg's latest book, Proud to Be Right, Voices of the Next Conservative Generation. Joseph can be heard Thursday mornings at 7:35am CST on the KHUB Morning Show with Matt Price.

[1] When the Federal Reserve raised interest rates, it caused a major contraction in available credit, which precipitated the 1981-1982 economic downturn.

[2] Modern inflation measures yield a lower number.

Ronald Reagan is rightly remembered for his fortitude in disposing of Soviet Russia in the Cold War, but perhaps the bravest decision of his presidency was not a matter of foreign policy.  When Reagan gave Fed Chairman Paul Volcker the full political backing necessary to wring inflation out of the U.S. economy, Reagan did the politically unthinkable: Intentionally cause an economic recession.[1]

To understand exactly how courageous this decision was, we must first examine the conditions under which Reagan was elected. Perhaps the most iconic image of the 1980 presidential campaign was the Gipper's devastating debate take-down of incumbent Jimmy Carter. "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" intoned a sober Reagan. "Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago?" The answer was no, America wasn't better off under Carter, and the Reagan-Bush ticket carried 44 of 50 states less than a week later.

What followed was a far cry from being "better off."  After the landslide victory was a recession that brought with it the highest unemployment in the postwar era.  The downturn came upon an already battered American workforce, who just one year earlier had come out of a recession.  The political fallout was a 27-seat Democratic gain in the House of Representatives in 1982 and the only time in the Reagan Presidency that his approval numbers dipped into the 30s, in 1983.

We look back at the early 80s inflation-slaying as a great achievement and obvious policy choice.  But in the moment, like any real-time decision, there were no foregone conclusions.  Reagan could have postponed the pain, much like President Obama did when decided to enact the bulk of ObamaCare only after his next election campaign.  Reagan could have found a Fed Chief willing to spread the inflation-curbing measures over a longer period, much like when Congress passed their most recent budget reductions.

These and scores of other less politically damaging options existed, each of which, if Reagan had chosen them, would have left the country worse off. According to the a figure in March 24, 1980 edition of Time, the inflation rate reached 18%[2] under Carter. At that rate, our dollars would halve in value every four years. Reagan realized America wouldn't survive under those conditions.  So he made the difficult decision.

Similarly tough conditions will confront the future GOP presidential nominee should he or she win the presidency.  So whom do we choose to face the challenge?

Voices from the Republican Establishment would have us take the safe route.  Karl Rove recently warned, "You don't want these candidates moving so Right in the Republican primary that it becomes impossible for them to win the general election" (a virtual echo of former President Gerald Ford's warning about Ronald Reagan in 1980: "A very conservative Republican cannot win in a national election").  To Rove and others who think like him, Obama has done such a poor job that the only excuse voters could possibly find to reelect him is if the Republicans nominate a noticeably conservative candidate.  Thus a less wave-making candidate would be superior.

Therein lies the difference between the Establishment's goals and conservatives' goals. The conservatives aren't satisfied by merely defeating Obama.  And while it's true that any member of the Republican field would be superior to Obama, better-than-Obama is a very low standard.

For example, the Republican budget negotiations this spring yielded a "better" result than what Obama wanted.  The same is true of the deal to raise the debt limit.  But neither action made any meaningful change to our country's suicidal financial trajectory.

Just as a modest upgrade to the nation's debt situation was unsuited for the seriousness of the time, so also a modest upgrade in the Oval Office will not be enough to save America from falling by the wayside.  The $1.3 trillion deficit, listless economy and pending ObamaCare entitlement change the game.  As author Mark Steyn has said, "we're looking at incredibly grim scenarios, not in 2050, 2070 and these other absurd CBO projections...but around 2015, 2017, 2018."

In other words, we've reached a point where -- for those fighting to preserve America as it was founded -- politically safe options are no longer viable.  To save America in 2012 will take the same gumption that it took to save America in 1981.  We need the Reagan Courage.

That political bravery must be requirement number one.  If we select a candidate without Reaganesque mettle, then we will, at best, tinker around the margins of catastrophe.

Walking the United States back from the brink is beyond the realm of technocratic expertise, clever campaign rhetoric or a sterling resume.  It will take a politically courageous president who makes difficult decisions.

Joseph Ashby is a contributor to Jonah Goldberg's latest book, Proud to Be Right, Voices of the Next Conservative Generation. Joseph can be heard Thursday mornings at 7:35am CST on the KHUB Morning Show with Matt Price.

[1] When the Federal Reserve raised interest rates, it caused a major contraction in available credit, which precipitated the 1981-1982 economic downturn.

[2] Modern inflation measures yield a lower number.

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