Ronald Reagan: The Great Communicator

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Few presidents have connected with the American people like Ronald Reagan did. Through a combination of persuasion and policy, our 40th president turned a depressed nation into a confident one. Scott Walker, former governor of Wisconsin and president of Young America's Foundation, explains how he did it.

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Ronald Reagan fashioned his political career and his presidency around three things. 

Lower taxes

Smaller government

Strong defense

In doing so, he almost single-handedly resurrected and redefined the modern conservative movement. But he did much more than that—he resurrected and redefined America.

If that sounds like an impressive feat, it was. And it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Reagan who could have done it. Known by friend and foe alike as The Great Communicator, even Democrats conceded that no one could connect with the American people like Reagan. Whenever he went on TV—which was often—to promote a policy, he invariably swung the American people his way. When he explained something, it just made sense.

Fittingly, it was a TV speech in 1964 entitled “A Time for Choosing” that launched his political career. He delivered it on behalf of Republican Presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater. Here’s just one of his many memorable passages.

"No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size… Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth."

This was pure Reagan: a basic truth delivered with humor.

Born in a small Midwestern town on February 6th, 1911, Reagan honed his communication skills as a radio announcer and then, as an actor. He was a genuine Hollywood star and celebrity for over two decades before he got into politics. Tall, broad-shouldered, and handsome with a golden voice, he was well-respected and well-liked by his peers. He was also seen as a natural leader. From 1947-52, he was President of the Screen Actors Guild, deftly guiding it through the blacklist era.    

In 1965, encouraged by the positive response to his “A Time for Choosing” speech, Reagan decided to run for governor of California. He won easily. The victory immediately established him as a major figure in the Republican party. By 1980, he was their overwhelming choice for President.

That year, he soundly defeated President Jimmy Carter. The incumbent lost because his pessimistic approach to problem-solving mirrored the justifiably sour mood of the country. The economy was going nowhere, caught in the double grip of inflation and stagnation.

In contrast, Reagan—ever the optimist—offered a way out. It wasn’t the American people who were to blame, he told voters, it was the government. Reagan would get it out of the way. He would lower taxes and cut red tape.

He did both.

The media dismissed his plan, calling it “Reaganomics.” But it worked.

From 1982 to '87, the American economy, defined as GDP adjusted for inflation, rose an astonishing 27 percent, manufacturing 33 percent, and the median income by 12 percent.

An estimated 20 million new jobs were created. All income classes and all racial and ethnic groups benefited from the Reagan economy.

The dark decade of the seventies, a time in which it looked like America was in a terminal eclipse, faded away. It was, as Reagan put it, during his 1984 re-election campaign, “Morning in America” again.

Every bit as transformational as his work on the economy, was his approach to foreign policy, specifically the Soviet Union. It’s easy to forget, but when Reagan came to office in 1981, Soviet-style communism appeared to be as strong, if not stronger, than American-style democracy.

Whereas Reagan’s predecessor had taken a “we just need to get along” approach, Reagan saw it much differently. He didn’t mince words. In March of 1983, he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” The media and the Democrats wailed that the phrase was reckless, but it was typical Reagan. Simple, clear, and true. What else do you call a totalitarian system that had deprived millions of people across the globe of their freedom?

When asked what his strategy was for fighting the Cold War, Reagan replied. “We win. They lose.”

It wasn’t just a glib line. He meant it. He expanded the US defense budget to unprecedented levels, in part to develop a ballistic missile shield his critics dubbed “Star Wars.” The strategy was to pressure the Soviets to try and keep up—which he knew they couldn. He was right. They didn’t have the money or the technology. Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev did all he could to pressure Reagan to drop it, but he would not budge.

To drive home his point, Reagan went to the Berlin Wall, a symbol of Communist oppression, and delivered one of his most famous lines: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” 

By the end of the decade, a year after Reagan left office, the Soviet Union collapsed, an outcome no one could have imagined—except possibly Reagan himself. There are many reasons why this happened, but no one played a bigger role than our 40th President.

We won. They lost.

Before the Reagan era, Americans were depressed and uncertain. By the end of it, they were optimistic and confident. Reagan had stuck to his formula: lower taxes, less government, strong defense. It worked.

And it still does today. 

I’m Scott Walker, president of Young America’s Foundation and former governor of Wisconsin, for Prager University.