All the Republican candidates for president have attempted to claim Ronald Reagan's mantle. But it takes more than a formulaic recitation of conventional conservative pieties -- low taxes, balanced budgets, strong defense, traditional values -- to deserve to be heir to the Reagan legacy.
Of course, Reagan believed in and fought for all those goals. But there was something quite unconventional about Reagan's view of America that accounted for his great success as a conservative. Perhaps the key to Reagan's unique brand of conservatism can be found in his presidential nomination acceptance speech delivered in Detroit's Joe Louis Arena on July 17, 1980.
As a young volunteer, I was one of the thousands in the audience that night, and I remember being thrilled to hear Reagan quote Thomas Paine: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again." At least procedurally, that is about as unconservative as can be conceived. Classic conservatism preaches that change comes best by respecting the institutions and values of a society, and by letting their organic development -- not some bright new idea -- lead to altered circumstances.
But there was Reagan, quoting old Tom Paine -- the most radical of our Founding Fathers (who not only championed the American Revolution but also the French as a member of the French revolutionary councils) -- and proposing that we can throw civilization's institutions and traditions overboard and "begin the world over again."
True, Reagan had in mind throwing over liberal, statist programs and tax codes that had encrusted our ancient liberties since FDR's New Deal. Reagan's values were conservative, but his impatience with the failures of the status quo was radical. That is why as a young man he had been a full-throated FDR New Dealer. And that is why FDR and Ronald Reagan were the two most successful American politicians of the 20th century.
They both understood that there is a radical, wipe-the-slate-clean, impatient streak in the American people. While it is true that the American Revolution was the most conservative of the great Enlightenment-epoch revolutions (American, French, Russian and Chinese), it was, nonetheless, a revolution -- yes, for property rights but also deeply dubious of unfettered democratic energies.
But the hotheaded impatience of our Founding Fathers (and the broader population that fought the revolution) abides to this day. While it can be subterranean for years or even decades, when conditions become too unacceptable, that old radical impatience of the American people floods out across the land.
Blankley, who had been suffering from stomach cancer, died Saturday night at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, his wife, Lynda Davis, said Sunday.
In his long career as a political operative and pundit, his most visible role was as a spokesman for and adviser to Gingrich from 1990 to 1997. Gingrich became House Speaker when Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives following the 1994 midterm elections.