04 November 2010

The Election of Ronald Reagan, 30 Years On

Birth of a Revolution

Thirty years ago today Ronald Reagan won the presidency. Few elections have had the monumental economic and foreign policy consequences of the one held on Nov. 4, 1980.

In the decade before Reagan's election, the economy had faltered worse than at anytime since the Great Depression. The stock market lost almost half of its value, mortgage interest rates hit nearly 20% and the inflation rate topped 14%. The word "stagflation" -- high inflation and high unemployment -- entered the lexicon. After the full implementation of Reaganomics -- lower tax rates, less regulation, control of government spending, the taming of inflation -- the economy boomed. Eight million jobs were created over the next decade, and the economy grew at 8% per year.

I asked Reagan biographer Craig Shirley, author of the new book "Rendezvous with Destiny," about the significance of the 1980 election. "Reagan understood what few other politicians of his era did," said Mr. Shirley, "and that is that intellectualism and wisdom are with the American people and not the elitist ruling classes. Reagan and the populist conservatives he led made the elites uncomfortable because they were a threat the existing order. Common sense is intellectualism." Arthur Laffer, Mr. Reagan's chief economist, told me: "Reagan had three priorities and he never deviated from them: cut taxes, slay inflation, and win the Cold War."

One of the Gipper's greatest legacies was the Reagan Revolution, which gave birth to a modern-day conservative movement that continues to thrive three decades later. Tuesday's victory for Republicans was a result of stitching together the Reagan coalition of free-market advocates, social conservatives, Reagan Democrats and independents. Reagan said during the 1980 campaign that "all of our problems . . . are in direct proportion to the overspending in Washington." That sounds a lot like what today's Tea Partier say about Mr. Obama and his $2 trillion spending spree.

"Ronald Reagan was a Tea Partier before the phrase was coined," said Mr. Shirley, "because he knew what the Founders intended, and that was for power to flow upward and not downward."

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