by Rod D. Martin
October 25, 2004
“Bush, Reagan and the Pivot of History” is the concluding chapter to Rod D. Martin and Aman Verjee’s acclaimed 2004 election book, Thank You, President Bush: Reflections on the War on Terror, Defense of the Family, and Revival of the Economy. With an introduction by Jeb Bush and chapters examining every aspect of his presidency by co-authors including Dick Cheney, Mike Huckabee, James Dobson, Phyllis Schlafly, Ed Meese, and nearly two dozen additional conservative all-stars, U.S. News has called it “the must-read book of the season on the pro-Bush side.”
Bush, Reagan and the Pivot of History
Concluding chapter of Thank You, President Bush, Los Angeles: World Ahead Publishing, September 2004.
Aman and I dedicated this book – a call for the re-election of George W. Bush – to Ronald Reagan. This choice meant more than you might think, both about us and about our current President.
For our parts, Ronald Reagan was not merely a great president: he was the great president, the formative political figure of our generation and the hero who defined our time. We do not bestow the comparison – even on a president we admire and support – lightly. For us, it is virtually the highest praise we are able to give.
But it is President Bush who earned that praise, and whom, dedication aside, this book lauds. While many dedications are almost throw-away lines, we see ours as integral to the book, precisely because the symmetry is becoming so very strong; and because we are convinced that, given a second term to complete his task, George W. Bush will give birth to a new and better era, one for which Reagan long hoped and of which he would be most proud. What’s more, this younger leader comes to the stage not one moment too soon, because like Reagan – and for reasons which go far beyond 9/11 – he (and we with him) stand at what might be termed the pivot of history.
The Reagan Legacy
Though you would never know it from the protestations of adoration poured upon him at his death, it was fashionable once – yea, mandatory – among media, political and cultural leaders of the left to loudly proclaim Ronald Reagan a warmonger and a fool. Perhaps this is the best indicator of his Chuchillian stature; for like Reagan, Churchill was so maligned, and like Churchill, Reagan saved the world.
The left, of course, credited Gorbachev for this, which resembled nothing so much as crediting Hitler’s suicide for the end of World War II. Reagan’s victory – and the fact that we are not now speaking Russian or buried ala Khrushchev under a smoldering ruin – was produced of a vision shared by no president before him, and a fortitude possessed by few.
He refused to accept the left’s received wisdom of “moral equivalence” between the Communist East and the democratic West: he called Russia the “evil empire” it was, and revived the moral courage essential for victory. His opponents, lesser men from Michael Dukakis to Michael Foot, hurled their epithets: “dangerous,” “destabilizing,” “cowboy.” But Reagan understood the real danger was in a nuclear superpower bent on world conquest and in the throes of both economic and ethnic collapses its Western apologists refused to see.
He repaired a nuclear “deterrent” so badly eroded as to lack credibility and invite blackmail. Side by side with Margaret Thatcher, he stood down the left’s greatest-ever attempted appeasement – the nuclear freeze movement – and not only rearmed America but re-established its deterrent in Europe. The Soviets, playing off the terror of the times, threatened to walk out of stalled arms talks if he did so. In a move which stunned everyone, he wished them fond farewell. He would not be bullied; and when they realized it, they returned.
His certainty that people everywhere yearned for freedom and that free markets could always out-produce centrally-planned slavery drove his strategies where realpolitik could never go. He replaced both containment and détente with his “Reagan Doctrine,” proclaiming America would actively roll back its foe by helping freedom fighters behind the Iron Curtain. From World War II until Reagan, not one square inch of ground had been recovered once lost to communism. Now all things changed, as Moscow was made to play defense, first in Grenada and Afghanistan, and ultimately from the Berlin Wall to the USSR itself.
Unwilling to play for less than total victory, he went for the Russian jugular. Realizing that over half of all Soviet hard currency came from the export of oil, he cut a deal with Saudi Arabia: weapons and other benefits previously unavailable, in exchange for an oil glut which would buoy the West and skewer the common foe. Combining this with an arms race, the keystone of which was the high-tech Strategic Defense Initiative, he pushed Moscow over a cliff his opponents said did not – could not – exist. Gorbachev, coming in much too late after a string of dead General Secretaries, was left first to “restructure,” then to dismantle his empire, and finally just to “wither away.”
This is Reagan’s greatest legacy, but it is hardly his only one. His supply-side faith in Arthur Laffer’s lower marginal tax rates ignited a twenty-year boom in an America used to every-three-year recessions and facing real economic decline: the Club of Rome’s famed “Limits to Growth” which, embraced by Carter and the commentariat, planned for the retreat of Western civilization to an almost pre-industrial level, were prompted not merely by sick ideology but by the fact that semi-socialist Keynesianism was burning out just like its more-evil Soviet cousin. His vision for tax-deferred retirement accounts transferred the “means of production” to the “proletariat” and destroyed the basis for class warfare: shareholders, a tiny fraction of the population in 1980, today are a large majority. The wealth his ideas created drove a technological boom unlike any the world had ever seen, and convinced billions previously susceptible to socialism that freedom really works.
It is there that Reagan’s greatness really lies. To a bleak Orwellian world, he restored hope; and the chance not only that there would be a next century, but that it would be a good one. Today, standing on the shoulders of this giant, his successor has a chance not merely to continue that legacy, but to fulfill and extend it; and if he succeeds in that task, he like Reagan will define our nation for decades beyond.
In the days surrounding Reagan’s funeral, some questioned the validity of any comparison between these two men. Yet the facts speak for themselves, and speak powerfully. A brief survey is in order.
The End of the Rainbow: Missile Defense
This Fourth of July weekend, twenty-one years after Reagan’s famous speech, America’s first missile interceptor was finally loaded into its Alaska silo. What Reagan once dreamed – indeed, devoted much of his presidency to – George W. Bush has made real.
This will come as a surprise to the seventy percent of Americans who through the years have consistently believed Reagan deployed a working system in the 1980s. It comes as an equal shock to those millions of us who knew better, and who watched as Democrats pulled every trick in the book to prevent missile defenses ever being deployed. But there he was, on a cold December’s day in 2001, George W. Bush, withdrawing us from the ABM Treaty by which Nixon had surrendered America’s technological lead to Brezhnev, prohibiting America from defending herself; and there he was again this July, fulfilling Reagan’s long ago promise.
He should be re-elected if only for this alone.
It’s hard now to remember just how we all felt then, living under the daily threat not of what a bin Laden might do to one city or two, but of what history’s most brutal dictatorship might do to us all. But it’s even harder to imagine the insane logic of MAD, or Mutually Assured Destruction, which elevated that fear to the level of national strategy, the strategy in fact which most of America’s liberal elite preferred as the bulwark of America’s “defense” (the much smaller remainder of the left, which demanded unilateral disarmament, can only be understood as terrified beyond reason or as a fifth column; and in fact, they were a good bit of both). MAD, simply put, said that if the Russians launched against us, we’d launch against them. It was a Strangelovian balance of terror, by which both sides held hundreds of millions of innocents hostage. Yet for wanting to end this surreal, sick nightmare through purely defensive means, the left decried Reagan a madman, never quite seeing their own irony.
Their argument – which rested on the ideas that SDI would be “destabilizing” and that Russia’s vast number of warheads would overwhelm any possible defense – would have held a great deal more credibility if they’d quit making it after the Soviet Union fell. But in fact, though the Evil Empire is gone, the new Russia is (mostly) our friend, serious bilateral nuclear disarmament has been in full swing for fifteen years, and the current and growing threats are entirely of accidental launches or unstable dictators with but a handful of missiles – neither of which can be meaningfully deterred – the left has not, has never changed tunes. The Bill Clinton who once wrote that he “loathed the military,” the John Kerry who returned from Vietnam accusing the majority of America’s brave soldiers of war crimes, they and their allies did all they could to keep America undefended.
One can sympathize with the fearful, with those whose approach to the very real terror of nuclear attack was to hide their heads ostrich-like in the sand, raving about “the unthinkable.” Never mind that Stalin’s intentional terror famine in Ukraine was also unthinkable; Pol Pot’s murder of half Cambodia’s population between 1975 and 1978 was also unthinkable; Hitler’s “final solution” was also unthinkable. Some are constitutionally incapable of dealing with these issues, and likewise incapable of seeing that mass-murdering dictatorships are not an aberration but a constant of history. Though we disagree, we can understand how they feel, and be grateful for visionaries like Reagan, who could do their thinking for them and, in the process, remove the source of their fear.
But the willfully blind are another matter. It is not within the scope of this book to examine why Kerry or Clinton, Daschle or Kennedy wish passionately to leave America vulnerable to a North Korean missile; but it is within our scope to declare them unfit to lead. They are perfectly willing – and loudly demanding – that America gamble: that no one will launch a missile at her, that all attacks will be “like 9/11,” unconventional and unpredictable.
And maybe they’re right.
But in case they aren’t – and since it’s the job of our leaders to defend us to the best of their ability, not just bet on hunches and hopes – it seems quite self-evident that defending against the threat of the most dangerous weapons on Earth is indeed essential. And we finally have a president who has done it.
Letting Freedom Reign
Yet Reagan knew that merely defending America’s homeland was not enough: “Fortress America” was inadequate at mid-century, ludicrous by the 1980s. The world would not be safe, America could never be safe, so long as the USSR remained, actively propagating its “dictatorship of the proletariat” by every means at its disposal. And likewise, merely replacing Soviet rule with “friendly” dictatorships, while occasionally unavoidable, was to Reagan no solution: the real goal was freedom. And free men everywhere, he believed, would lay down arms, take up tools, and build a new, peaceful, prosperous world for themselves and their posterity given the chance.
In this measure too, Bush is Reagan’s heir. Having defined his Axis of Evil, he quickly sought to diplomatically surround North Korea, and physically surround Iran (with bases encircling from Afghanistan and Central Asia to Iraq and the Persian Gulf). He lanced the endlessly festering boil of Iraq and established a democratic government which – at this writing – enjoys a roughly eighty percent approval rating. If it takes, it will surely inspire a cascade effect of freedom throughout a region without a single democracy, save Israel.
Again, the first domino to fall is likely Iran. Dissatisfaction with the mullahs is at an all-time high, a situation which has already had a positive influence in Iraq, where, despite a more than sixty percent Shi’ite majority, a mere eight percent want the sort of theocracy their neighbors have come to loath. And most dangerous for the current regime, a majority of the Iranian population is younger than the revolution. Born after 1979, they know well the brutality of the extremely efficient ayatollahs, they know the Shah only as ancient history, and they know that many of their mothers had equal rights and studied in American universities. As the impossibly porous border with Iraq – and to a lesser degree Afghanistan – begins to spread fewer Iranian terrorists and more common Iraqis with a better, freer life, the lid will blow off Iran as though it were 1989 again.
Is Bush’s Iraq/Iran policy American self-interest? Is it unabashed idealism? As with Reagan, it’s both, reflected in Bush’s twin beliefs in taking the battle to the enemy (the Reagan Doctrine perfectly parallels the Bush Doctrine) and in freedom as both subversive force and ultimate cure. The left claims it is neither of these, but their claim rings increasingly hollow. As Victor Davis Hansen put it shortly after the handover of sovereignty, “The oil pipeline in Afghanistan that we allegedly went to war over doesn’t exist. Brave Americans died to rout al Qaeda, end the fascist Taliban, and free Afghanistan for a good and legitimate man like a Hamid Karzai to oversee elections. It was politically unwise and idealistic – not smart and cynical – for Mr. Bush to gamble his presidency on getting rid of fascists in Iraq. There really was a tie between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein – just as Mr. Gore and Mr. Clinton once believed and Mr. Putin and [Iraqi Prime Minister] Allawi now remind us. The United States really did plan to put Iraqi oil under Iraqi democratic supervision for the first time in the country’s history. And it did.”
And when news of the handover of sovereignty to the Iraqis reached President Bush’s ears, his smile told all, and his quickly dashed note to Condoleeza Rice – “Let freedom reign” – was heartfelt. It could not have been John Kerry. But it could have been Reagan.
Beyond Reagan’s Vision
Trying to list the ways in which Bush is fulfilling Reagan’s vision is the work of a book, not a chapter, and indeed that has been this anthology’s very point. Yet the high points still impress. Surely no one has so firmly stood for America’s sovereignty in ages: withdrawing us from the ABM Treaty, rejecting the International Criminal Court Treaty, and resisting Al Gore’s Kyoto Protocol fantasy, Bush has stood like a giant, not merely refusing to be tied down by the Lilliputians, but stomping as many of them as possible under his feet. Likewise, he’s been the most pro-gun president in memory, from his evisceration of UN efforts to impose a global gun ban to his reversal of the over-three-decades-old Justice Department position that the Second Amendment creates “no individual right” to gun ownership (and indeed, if it does not, it is utter nonsense).
He’s been thoroughly pro-life, in his judicial appointments, in his reinstitution of the Mexico City Policy, in his signing of the Partial Birth Abortion Ban and the Laci Peterson Law, and most importantly in his constant, active encouragement of a culture of life. The fact that lifelong abortion activist Patty Ireland’s own polls now show a pro-life majority among women – for the first time since Roe v. Wade – shows just how much impact he’s had. And of course much of this book has been devoted to his revival of Reaganomics, a devotion to supply-side theory which – despite a recession and market crash inherited from his predecessor and the economic effects of 9/11 to boot – has created what the Associated Press this week called “the best economy in twenty years.”
Will voters realize that fact before November? Maybe not; but one thing’s certain: they did in 1984.
Yet perhaps the most enduring, transformative act remains a dream: real Social Security reform. This was surely the most unsung, yet dramatic achievement of Ronald Reagan’s presidency aside from winning the Cold War: his championing of Individual Retirement Accounts and 401(k)s, by which average Americans could save tax-free for their retirement, escape the slavery of the Social Security Ponzi scheme, and become real owners of the American Dream. Owners? Yes: when Reagan came to office, only 16% of American adults owned $5,000 or more of stock; by the turn of the century, that number had risen to an outright majority. On this flood of capital, markets soared, the economy boomed, small and large businesses alike exploded, homeownership soared, and Americans reached heights they’d never imagined. And perhaps most important of all, once again, the means of production had been transferred to the proletariat: America had become a bourgeoisie nation, and the fate of Marxian class warfare arguments had been sealed.
Building on this astonishing achievement – which the masses perceived but did not grasp – George W. Bush became the first major candidate to run on a platform calling for the individual ownership and direction of Social Security accounts. This went beyond touching the “third rail”: it was grasping the thing, ripping it from the crossties. And yet despite Al Gore’s increasingly hysterical attacks, the public didn’t punish Bush. Quite the contrary: even at the height of Enron and WorldCom and the bust, poll after poll showed majorities as high as seventy percent behind Bush’s plan. Eventually, Democrats may realize that a sizeable portion of that majority is not Republican.
Like every major Western nation, America faces a crippling pension crisis. It has not saved a single penny of it’s people’s Social Security “contributions”, because the “Trust Fund” is a myth. Social Security is pay-as-you-go: everything that comes in is spent today, on everything from thousand dollar hammers to crucifixes dipped in urine. Nothing is saved, no one has a real account. Any company that tried this would be busted, its executives sent to jail. But America faces a day – soon and very soon – on which bazillions of baby boomers will regret the children they aborted, as their too-few living progeny cannot sustain their monthly checks. Those then-middle aged children, of course, will never receive anything at all.
It need not be this way. Private accounts work, because freedom works: a government pension system is designed as badly and works as well as a government steel mill. And if the poverty of a Social Security system in which the death benefit won’t even buy a casket is not sufficiently clear, just look abroad. From Chile to Australia to Britain, our smarter neighbors have already pioneered this trail. We know exactly how to make private ownership work, and exactly what pitfalls must be avoided; and even more to the point, we know the power of the plan. After just a few years under the new system, Britain by itself had amassed a combined wealth in its private retirement accounts exceeding the total assets of all European government retirement systems combined.
Extending Reagan’s legacy in dramatic fashion, George W. Bush looks to give every American the benefit of this experience. Politics, of course, requires starting smaller than the situation truly demands. However, a truly private retirement system could easily eradicate most poverty in America: more than that, it could transform America from a middle class nation to a nation of the rich. Even cautious estimates indicate that private accounts would enable the average American to live on a retirement income at least equal to his working-years salary, even after adjusting for inflation. More importantly, both spouses would get all the money they’d saved, and both could pass on everything they don’t spend to their children, tax free. In this fashion – and through the similar Health Savings Account law just passed – nearly all Americans could accumulate true intergenerational wealth by the end of the century. It would be unlike anything in the history of the world.
The Pivot of History
It is in this manner – though not only this manner – that George W. Bush stands not merely as a good leader for his time, but truly at the pivot of history. Failure on the Social Security issue could doom America to a grim and dismal fate, as its internal economic crisis of escalating taxes and receding markets (as capital is withdrawn en masse from retirement accounts, much faster than can be replenished) comes to parallel Britain’s decline after World War I, with an accompanying transfer of global dominance to the booming growth engine that is China. Yet success could easily inaugurate a golden age like nothing ever seen in all of time. George W. Bush stands at this pivot. The choice is not entirely his, but the credit or blame (properly) will be.
He also stands at the most polarized period in American life since 1864. The old consensus politics which grew out of the New Deal are gone: the Republicans have finally become a party of the right, capable of balancing and meaningfully opposing a Democratic Party which moves further left by the day. This competition is at once frightening and exhilarating to liberals: they love the fight, they thrill at the opportunity to flex their considerable institutional muscles. And yet, they know they’re losing power. That Americans think of Social Security in the way they now do, that welfare reform has worked so dramatically, that more numerous media outlets provide conservatives a national voice, all these things terrify the left. It’s not just about Congress, or about any particular institution: it’s about the accumulated orthodoxy, built over a century, that says in a thousand ways every day to every American that liberalism is right. It is that which is slipping away. And that slippage is producing the polarization, on both sides.
Yet though the commentators speak of a 50-50 nation, it’s not so simple as that. The gurus forever forget that, under the best of circumstances, only half of eligible Americans vote, that any party which can mobilize a decent number of non-voters can radically alter the landscape without swaying a single current voter.
They forget this because they believe that, in reality, pretty much every group is maxed out. And that’s a pretty fair assessment. You’ll likely never see a greatly increased percentage of African Americans voting than voted in 2000. The same holds for women, union members, gun owners, gays, or any other group you’re likely to name. To the degree Hispanics are an exception, that is increasingly mitigated by the fact that Republicans are making significant gains within their ranks. This is the calculus, say the gurus: it’s still all about winning the middle.
The problem is, their calculus is wrong. There is one truly enormous group which votes far less than its numbers suggest. Though many of its current voters still vote Democrat, that number is declining, while almost every additional voter they produce votes Republican. And no one sees it coming.
That group is Evangelical Christians.
There are 60 million Evangelicals in America, yet only 15 million of them vote. There are a number of reasons for this, most of which are theological in nature and not within the scope of this book. Yet every day that a baby is aborted, every time a Roy Moore gets attacked in the press, every place a homosexual “marriage” is performed, more Evangelicals find the resolve to enter the process and stand up for their values. And the polarization we see today is heaping mountains of fuel on the fire.
It is always positive when Americans participate in their government. Our system depends upon a vigorous debate in the marketplace of ideas: the effective self-exclusion of such a large group from its proper place in American life for much of the last century impoverished us all. In theory, at least, everyone should embrace the rise of Evangelical voting and applaud it as much overdue.
But it won’t just be ideology that prevents the left from enjoying this unfolding civics lesson.
Christians are coming into the process because they are outraged. There’s no question where their outrage is directed. Merely reaching the fifty percent voting strength one might expect of them would up-end the current political calculus: as they flood into Republican ranks, they will swamp the liberal and non-ideological hacks who run much of the party (this process has been accelerating over the past decade), and eventually they will dramatically add to Republican voting strength (not to mention activist strength) at general elections. And as everyone gains a powerful ownership stake in upward mobility through Health Savings Accounts and the proposed Personal Retirement Accounts, the number of Americans seeking distinctly free market solutions – and rejecting statism – is sure to increase as well. A 50-50 nation could easily turn 60-40 over the next generation.
For all these reasons, George W. Bush stands in a historically unique position: given another term, he can lay the foundation for a new American Century of such universal wealth and power as none have ever imagined; and at the same time, as a genuine Christian and a true supply-sider, he can dramatically propel those trends which would give his party an insuperable majority with which to see that project through. He has come to that point through faithfulness to Reagan’s vision. Given just one more election victory, we will all learn whether he fulfills the promise he’s shown, of reaching beyond that vision to one so much grander as to eclipse all which has gone before. But whether he does or whether he doesn’t, we have seen that he can be trusted to try. His opponent, by contrast, will do everything possible to undo even that which we now have.
To borrow from de Tocqueville, George W. Bush has become a great man because he is first a good one. Even when he’s erred, that goodness has shown through: he has consistently, obviously tried to do the right thing.
We believe in him. We appreciate him. We certainly support him. And perhaps most rare of all in politics, we thank him. He has earned our gratitude, as well as that of every friend of liberty throughout the world.