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Perry’s Reagan Moment

September 26, 2011

No conservative candidate is going to pass every conceivable litmus test of ideological purity and no conservative candidate is always going to propose what others think wise. The essence of conservatism is individuality and that means sharing common broad principles but not sharing every single viewpoint in life identically.

As an example, most conservatives would consider faith in God, especially faith in the God of Jews and Christians, to be a broad principle they share with other conservatives. That does not mean, however, identical viewpoints on faith. Catholics, Baptists, Jews, Mormons and many others can hold all the major conservative principles in common without having the same holidays, the same bible, and the same catechism.

Reagan understood that there are really only a few broad and overarching principles of conservatism, but that it was vital to express those passionately, firmly and boldly. On March 8, 1983 Reagan addressed the National Association of Evangelicals. He dismissed the moral relativism which sought to paint the arms race as a misunderstanding between America and the Soviet Union and which ignored “the aggressive impulses of an evil empire.”

The Beltway and the elitists of the media were, of course, horrified. Even anticommunist Republicans, who adhered to the Nixon-Ford strategy of accommodating and outflanking the Soviets blushed. What could it achieve for Reagan to so brazenly condemn the Soviet Union? Yet, as history has so clearly shown, often the turning point in long battles comes when those who see evil begin to call it by its proper name.

Chamberlain loathed Hitler and Nazism. He wished to contain it, to appease it (which was not a dirty word then) and, over time, for sensible Germans to take over. He was thinking like a level headed politician dealing with an unsavory, but practical, foe. Churchill knew better. Hitler was wholly wicked and so were his slavish followers. The German people were one thing, but the Nazis were another (much like, to Reagan, the Russian people were one thing, but the Soviet leaders were another.)

The greatness of Churchill, like the greatness of Reagan, was in rhetoric not deeds. It was in calling out in clear language what was corrupt, dishonest and malicious. This might involve stirring speech-making, but anyone who has listened to Churchill talk to us from 1940 know that his speech impediment remained lifelong and what he said mattered much more than how he said it. Churchill was not a master of tactics or even military strategy, but he grasped absolutely the need to draw stark moral lines and force people to choose.

Rick Perry, much to the embarrassment of some Republicans, has spoken the same simple truths on broad matters that Reagan and Churchill did. Is Social Security a “Ponzi scheme”? Well, there are differences between what Ponzi, the slick investment salesman, did and what the left does with the Social Security system, but that really means nothing. The Social Security System is manifestly unsustainable (Ponzi did pay back his original investors, which is why he kept selling so well to little old ladies) and its premise is wholly dishonest.

Perry does not say that Social Security recipients are bad or that the idea of a social system is wrong. He does not quibble abut which plans to fix the system are best. What Perry has done, and does not back off from doing, is draw a clear moral line in the sand. The contrast between Perry and other Republicans, even conservative Republicans, is stark.

In the Reagan Library Debate, for example, the estimable Herman Cain implied that it did little good to engage in rhetoric, and he proposed instead a solution – one of many different good solutions – as if that was what mattered. Cain was dead wrong: it is absolutely vital to engage and to win the grand rhetorical debate about the immorality of the Social Security System as it has existed thus far.

Others, notably Huntsman, have more or less said that Republicans who call Social Security a Ponzi scheme or doubt openly the grand myth of manmade global warming are going to lose the election. Actually, those Republicans who refuse to say what is true if it opens them to ridicule are gray nebbishes whose will always seek to “tweak” policies much like Carter tried to reason with the Kremlin.

Perry has done this in other areas too. When he announced his run for the presidency, Governor Perry promised to make Washington as inconsequential in the lives of Americans as possible. This, again, is a grand rhetorical point – states and citizens, not the federal government, make our nation good and noble. A vast cluster of other lesser issues follow in the wake of this grand theme, but if Republicans miss the big point and focus on the minutia, then we may not lose the war (just as Republicans before Reagan did not lose the Cold War), but we cannot win it.

Rick Perry, quite deliberately, is not offering small ideas on how to gradually nudge America back towards limited government and fiscal sanity. He is articulating how we can actually win the war, very much like Ronald Reagan did three decades ago.

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Copyright ©2011 Bruce Walker

Bruce Walker is a long-time conservative writer whose work is published regularly at popular conservative sites such as American Thinker.