Remember when conservatives were conservatives? In the Reagan years, the time of the only conservative American president in the modern era, one was a conservative, not a fiscon, neocon, socon, paleocon or any other kind of con. In fact, “con” was used by liberals as a term of contempt for conservatives, never by conservatives in self-reference.
How times have changed. Some of the issues Ronald Reagan had to deal with have changed, but the need for conservatives to unite behind his principles has not. There is no argument that the most successful Republican president of the twentieth century was conservative on matters of national security, fiscal responsibility and limited government. But some tend to forget that Reagan was also conservative on social issues. Today, with libertarian and social wings of the conservative movement at each others’ throats, Ronald Reagan would be appalled at how the coalition he built has managed to divide itself.
It is true that Reagan, as pro-choicers claim, signed a therapeutic abortion bill as California governor in 1967. But he signed it reluctantly and regretted doing so for the rest of his life. He increasingly became an outspoken opponent of the grisly practice:
Reagan “agonized” over the legislation, recalled former aide Edwin Meese, and took a week out of his schedule to talk to doctors, clergymen and psychiatrists about the issue.
Reagan came to regret signing the bill, Meese said, primarily because the number of abortions skyrocketed in California under the rubric of protecting the “mental health” of women. Within a year, Reagan said the law was a mistake.
Years later, when conservatives were casting around for an alternative to Gerald R. Ford for the 1976 GOP nomination, Reagan made increasingly strong statements of opposition to abortion.
His conversion helped position him as a darling of the Republican right and contributed to his surprisingly strong, if unsuccessful, showing in the GOP primary against Ford, who supported abortion rights.
By the time he ran for the White House a second time, Reagan was a clear champion of anti-abortion forces.
In an address to a convention of evangelicals in 1983, one which came to be known more for his reference to the “Evil Empire” than his remarks on social issues, Reagan argued against abortion and the high court decision which, even two decades after he left office, continues to facilitate the gruesome procedure:
More than a decade ago, a Supreme Court decision literally wiped off the books of fifty states statutes protecting the rights of unborn children. Abortion on demand now takes the lives of up to one and a half million unborn children a year. Human life legislation ending this tragedy will someday pass the Congress, and you and I must never rest until it does. Unless and until it can be proven that the unborn child is not a living entity, then its right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness must be protected.
Though he agonized over his decision not to save a convicted murderer from execution, Reagan was also firm in his support of the death penalty:
On April 11, 1967, opponents of capital punishment held an all-night vigil outside Governor Reagan’s house to protest his refusal to grant clemency to Aaron Mitchell, sentenced to death for the murder of a Sacramento policeman. Reagan later said it the worst decision he had to make. Mitchell was executed at 10 AM the following day in San Quentin’s gas chamber.
This was the only execution carried out in California during Reagan’s 8 years as governor. Reagan granted clemency in the one other capital case that came to him, on the basis of evidence that the condemned man had a history of brain damage.
Reagan had been bitterly disappointed when the judge he had named to head the California Supreme Court wrote the decision striking down the state’s capital punishment statute after Reagan had left the Governor’s office.
There was also much more to Reagan’s anti-drug policy than he is given credit for:
Reagan was serious about reducing the scourge of drugs, and the efforts of his administration went well beyond Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” campaign. The Justice Department involved the FBI in the fight against drugs, added five hundred Drug Enforcement Administration agents, established thirteen regional anti-drug task forces and chalked up record numbers of drug seizures and convictions. But the magnitude of the drug problem was at least as great when Reagan left office as when he entered it.
The importance of values to Ronald Reagan, as expressed in his farewell address, should never be forgotten:
“I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: it was the content. I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation-from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries. They called it the Reagan revolution. Well, I’ll accept that, but for me it always seemed more like the great rediscovery, a rediscover of our values and our common sense.“
Despite his socially conservative views, however, Ronald Reagan considered libertarian principles to be essential to conservatism:
If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. I think conservatism is really a misnomer just as liberalism is a misnomer for the liberals–if we were back in the days of the Revolution, so-called conservatives today would be the Liberals and the liberals would be the Tories. The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.
Now, I can’t say that I will agree with all the things that the present group who call themselves Libertarians in the sense of a party say, because I think that like in any political movement there are shades, and there are libertarians who are almost over at the point of wanting no government at all or anarchy. I believe there are legitimate government functions. There is a legitimate need in an orderly society for some government to maintain freedom or we will have tyranny by individuals. The strongest man on the block will run the neighborhood. We have government to insure that we don’t each one of us have to carry a club to defend ourselves. But again, I stand on my statement that I think that libertarianism and conservatism are travelling the same path.
What happened to the Reagan coalition to divide libertarians and social conservatives so? After Reagan, with no strong across-the-board conservative to hold the factions together, both libertarians and social conservatives stopped thinking of themselves as simply conservative.
Some social conservatives began to focus on their opposition to abortion above all else, and they didn’t show the same outrage over the growth of the federal monster and the unbridled spending binge a drunken Republican Party went on in the post-Reagan years. It is understandable how important the sanctity of life is to some in this group, but they seem to have become afflicted with a tunnel vision which blinds them to issues beyond abortion. Libertarian conservatives and some fiscal conservatives have come to resent them for it.
Some libertarians in the years since Reagan have become more focused on personal liberty than on the size of government or fiscal restraint, putting them more at odds with the social conservatives. Without a strong leader like Ronald Reagan to keep making the case for smaller government and less spending, many libertarians have lost interest in the conservative cause.
Both sides blame each other. In truth, there is plenty of blame to go around. All factions of Reagan’s coalition deserve their share. Some are driven by what they see as the need for the U.S. to export its flavor of democracy to a world they feel is starving for it. They couldn’t care less about such mundane matters as government spending, the federal colossus and the right of life, once sparked into existence, to continue. Others believe that as long as taxes are low, any other government abuses are tolerable. This madness has to stop.
Libertarians, you have more to fear from from government in the hands of liberals who want to design your next car, program your local radio stations and save you from yourselves than you do from those conservatives who fight for the rights of the unborn.
Values conservatives, put your energies into working to have decisions on life and marriage made closer to home. When the voters decide these matters at the state level, they are more likely to rule in your favor than are federal judges and justices. Please channel some of your enthusiasm into the fight your conservative brethren are waging against big government and fiscal irresponsibility.
Conservatives, if you don’t agree with some issues other factions of the conservative movement hold dear, please at least try to respect where they are coming from. Remember that we all have more in common than what sets us apart. The bottom line for conservatives is that we need one another. When the liberals get moderates and independents on their side, we’re outnumbered. It’s past time to stop beating each other up. That only serves the liberals and helps them advance their agenda.