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Q&A: Paul Kengor on “11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative” (Part Two)

This is the second part of an interview (read part one) with Grove City College professor Paul Kengor about his new book “11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative.” Here, Kengor discusses the “twin beacons” of faith and freedom, whether or not another “Reagan conservative” will be elected president and more.

5. In our current economic context, do you believe Reagan would still propose cutting taxes to spur economic growth?

Absolutely. Reagan brought the top tax rate down to 28 percent, which was considerably lower than it is right now. He would do so again. Liberals like to point out that Reagan occasionally increased taxes. Yes, he did—payroll tax, an excise tax or two and a few others. But these tax increases didn’t involve income taxes. As Reagan biographer Steve Hayward notes, Reagan “never budged an inch on marginal income tax rates.” Reagan understood that not all taxes, or tax increases, are equal.

11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative

We can certainly say that Reagan’s idea of “stimulus” was not the public-sector/Keynesian type that President Obama enacted with his massive and unproductive $800 billion stimulus package in 2009.

By the way, it’s interesting that liberals claim that Reagan’s tax cuts increased the deficit. That’s inaccurate. I lay this out in the book: The peak period of Reagan’s deficits was 1983-86, when the upper income tax rate was still 50 percent, reduced to that level (from 70 percent) by Reagan’s 1981 Economic Recovery Act. The rate was not reduced again until 1987, when it came down to 38.5 percent. The upper rate did not come down to 28 percent until 1988. And Reagan’s deficits actually decreased in the 1987-89 period, contrary to their increase in the 1983-86 period.

Think about the implications of this for current policy: The peak period of Reagan deficits occurred when the upper tax rate was 50 percent, far higher than the 39.6 percent rate that President Barack Obama and liberal Democrats demanded (for purposes of deficit reduction) in 2012-13. If President Obama and fellow liberals believe the deficit will come down with a 39.6 percent rate, then why did it not go down with Reagan’s 50 percent rate?

As I say in the book, this gets back to the main reason for Reagan’s deficits and for most deficits, whether they are accrued by a nation, a local government, a federal government, a home, a business or whatever: excessive spending—spending more money than you have. Any conservative should know that that’s a recipe for imprudence and insolvency. Conservatives believe in limited and prudent government.

6. Ronald Reagan believed that faith was essential to the preservation of liberty. How do you think he would respond to our increasingly pluralized contemporary American culture, where faith in general and Christianity in particular are often stigmatized?

He would be very troubled. The eternal optimist would be disheartened by this. I could expend thousands of words on this point, but I’d like to direct readers to a wonderful speech that Reagan gave to Georgetown University in October 1988. I’ve had my students read it for years. In this book, we reprinted the speech in its entirety. It’s a gem that every American should read. One choice excerpt is particularly worth sharing:

At its full flowering, freedom is the first principle of society; this society, Western society. And yet freedom cannot exist alone. And that’s why the theme for your bicentennial is so very apt: learning, faith and freedom. Each reinforces the others, each makes the others possible. For what are they without each other?

That’s a lesson for libertarians as well. That’s what often makes conservatives different from libertarians. For libertarians, the highest virtue is freedom. For conservatives, freedom needs faith. Faith provides the rudder for freedom, to check freedom, to keep freedom from becoming license and anarchy. Only when infused and elevated by the light of faith can our free will aspire to our better angels and enable us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Reagan spoke of the “twin beacons” of faith and freedom that brighten the American sky.

In that Georgetown speech, Reagan asked his audience to pray that America be guided by learning, faith and freedom. He quoted Alexis de Tocqueville: “Tocqueville said it in 1835, and it’s as true today as it was then: ‘Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot. Religion is more needed in democratic societies than in any other.’” With a nod to his academic audience, Reagan warned, “Learning is a good thing, but unless it’s tempered by faith and a love of freedom, it can be very dangerous indeed.”

[pullquote]     Reagan said that America is “less a place than an idea.” It is indeed.[/pullquote]

Reagan contended that one thing that “must never change” for America is that men and women must “seek Divine guidance in the policies of their government and the promulgation of their laws.” They must, he urged, “make our laws and government not only a model to mankind, but a testament to the wisdom and mercy of God.”

When such divine guidance is stigmatized and jettisoned, particularly in the promulgation of our laws, let alone the spirit of the culture, America will be in trouble. We will be at the mercy of secularists who lack charity, including charity toward religious believers whom they disagree with and refuse to tolerate in their phony and entirely self-serving professions of “tolerance” and “diversity.”

7. The political and social context in America has changed significantly since the 1980s. Is Reagan, and his “idea” of America, as relevant and important now as it was in prior years?

Yes, it is; and it is because it’s timeless. One of my favorite Reagan quotations comes from a speech he gave at tiny William Woods College in June 1952, a commencement speech to an all-women’s college. There, Reagan said that America is “less a place than an idea.” It is indeed. Think that one over. America truly is first and foremost an idea. The idea made the place possible. The idea drew people from all over the world to the place. The idea is timeless and worth fighting for—or, as a conservative would put, it’s worth conserving and preserving.

8. Do you think the Republican Party will ever produce another Reagan conservative? If so, do you believe the American people will unite in support of him or her as they did Ronald Reagan?

Yes, although I am worried that the culture is deteriorating so badly on social, moral and religious grounds that it could be extremely difficult for a genuine conservative to hold true to genuinely conservative principles, particularly with the mainstream media staunchly behind the Democrat and using these incendiary issues against the conservative Republican to portray him/her as a bigoted, cruel, uncaring monster. That’s why the “next Reagan” would need not only Reagan’s principles but also his style, his humor, his wit, his winsome ability to communicate and be liked.

Reagan said that America is “less a place than an idea.” It is indeed.

There are several conservatives out there today who have many to all of Reagan’s principles: Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Mike Lee, Tom Coburn and Rand Paul. There’s also a bunch in the House. (I recommend consulting the American Conservative Union’s ranking of the conservatism of various members of Congress.) I’m asked if there are Republican women who have Reagan’s principles. I can’t say that Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin do not. Those are just a few.

Among these, I believe that Marco Rubio particularly resembles and embodies Reagan’s principles and vision in an inspiring and appealing way, particularly with his understanding of America and American exceptionalism. His story about his father, his family and their background, and how they came from Cuba—along with the “Reaganesque” way in which he tells that story—reminds me very much of Reagan’s vision and rhetoric of the Shining City. So does Ted Cruz’s background, for that matter.

Read the transcript of Reagan’s January 1989 Farewell Address in the back of my book, and sections of his October 1964 Time for Choosing speech as well, and you’ll see what I mean. The inspiring ideas in those speeches remind me of the experiences of Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz in particular.

9. What is the response that you hope your readers will have after reading your book and understanding what characterizes a Reagan conservative?

I want conservatives to read this book so they can understand what genuine conservatism really is, and how it differs from libertarianism and certainly from progressivism. Too many people call themselves “Reagan conservatives” without truly knowing what that means. But I’d honestly also like progressives, liberals and non-conservatives generally to read the book. They probably won’t, but I really wish they would. Too often, their understanding of conservatism is a caricature—and a crass, crude and often cruel one at that. That was also their understanding of Reagan conservatism, which was usually a mean-spirited straw man.

The position of conservatives on everything from tax cuts to limited government to abortion and gay marriage is not lacking in care and compassion at all—once you pause to consider it and understand it rather than reflexively attack it. Our positions on these things are rooted in time-tested values and ideals. Our ideology is actually quite thoughtful about these things, with a rich intellectual tradition to back up our thinking. So, I plead with liberals/progressives to genuinely open their minds and give this some thought. It’s a short book, the shortest one I’ve ever written. I sincerely believe it’s worth their time. I want conservatism, which is not only what Reagan believed, but what I and millions of Americans have long believed, to be correctly understood. That, above all, is why I wrote this book.