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Henry Olsen: What Would Reagan Do?

[Mr. Olsen is vice president of the American Enterprise Institute and director of its National Research Initiative.]

This is not the first time that conservatives and Republicans have stared into an electoral abyss. After Barry Goldwater's crushing 1964 defeat, most political observers thought the only future for the GOP was to become a centrist party only slightly to the right of Great Society Democrats.

Ronald Reagan didn't agree. In a trenchant column penned in the Dec. 1, 1964 issue of National Review, he argued that Americans had rejected only a false vision of conservatism as a radical departure from the status quo. Conservatives, he said, had only "lost a battle in the continuing war for freedom." Voters would rally to the conservative banner once they realized that Democratic liberals were the true radicals.

His article is striking for what he said -- and didn't say. Reagan spoke of a "war for freedom," but he did not mention a single specific conservative policy. Rather, he defended conservatism's salience by arguing that "we represent the forgotten American -- that simple soul who goes to work, bucks for a raise, takes out insurance, pays for his kids' schooling, contributes to his church and charity and knows there just 'ain't no such thing as a free lunch.'"

This vision of conservatism would succeed by pointing out how liberal values diverged from the American consensus, and by attracting to conservatism average Americans -- the Reagan Democrats. It is only a short distance from Reagan's words, penned in abject defeat in 1964, to the triumphs of 1984, 1994 and 2004.

Reagan's vision also established conservatism as a movement dedicated to a principle rather than one married to a specific agenda. That principle, human freedom, was fixed. But it would be interpreted and applied in light of specific circumstances, and in ways to persuade "that simple soul" upon whose consent American political success rests....

Read entire article at WSJ