How Ronald Reagan Made Me A Conservative Pundit

I grew up in a Republican family, became a left-winger when in college and was a Communist for a while. By 1976 I was a garden-variety liberal Democrat. I voted for Jimmy Carter, enthusiastically, in that year. But then the wheels came off. Gas shortages, inflation, chronic unemployment–“stagflation,” previously thought impossible by most economists–and weakness overseas. Liberal pundits scolded young people for expecting more. They said that America’s decline was only natural, and we should all get used to it. The best course, according to the liberal consensus, was to move toward a state industry model like Germany’s or Japan’s.
At the time, I wasn’t sure what to make of all that, but it was obvious that we could do better than Jimmy Carter. In 1980 there was a three-way race among President Carter, GOP nominee Ronald Reagan and independent John Anderson, a quirky Congressman. I bought the media line that Reagan was a dangerous extremist, and voted for Anderson. Thankfully, most Americans weren’t so misguided.
After a couple of years, it was obvious that the Reagan administration’s policies were working. One of his first acts was to lift Carter’s irrational price controls on petroleum. Prices rose briefly, then plummeted. No more gasoline shortage. Reagan’s tax cuts–which, by the way, were supported by many Democrats–fueled vigorous economic growth. And the Fed’s monetary policies brought inflation under control faster than almost anyone had thought possible. During the Reagan administration, America’s GDP grew by an amount equal to the entire economy of Germany–one of the countries to whose more modest successes the Democrats had urged us to aspire.
Abroad, the success of the administration’s policies was almost equally obvious. Here, the liberal media may actually have helped. First Iran, then the Soviet Union shied away from conflict with the “crazy cowboy” who, Jimmy Carter had assured the Soviets, was dangerous. As it turned out, Reagan was as prudent as he was strong. As is often said, we (he) won the Cold War without firing a shot.
That is a bit ahead of the story. By 1984, anyone who had been awake for the past four years could see that the country was back on the right track, and President Reagan was re-elected in a landslide. Even I caught on–in Dwight Yoakam’s words, I may be slow, but I ain’t blind–and by then I was becoming a conservative.
In those days, Scott was my political mentor. He had made a similar philosophical journey, sooner and from not as far left, and introduced me to Commentary magazine and other sources of conservative thought. By 1988, my views were solidly on the right, but I had never been, and still was not, a very political person. I had no thought of punditry or political activism.
But shortly after the Reagan administration ended, something strange happened. The Left tried to rewrite history. A veritable cottage industry sprang up, consisting of journalists, politicians and pseudo-economists who tried to convince Americans that what they had lived through in the 1980s never really happened. I would have thought such an effort must be doomed to failure–who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?–and that revisionist history isn’t possible until the eyewitnesses have passed from the scene. But no! The idea that the Reagan administration had been a disaster for most Americans was actually taken seriously in many quarters.
One of the most egregious examples of this left-revisionism was a book called America: What Went Wrong? by two Philadelphia reporters, Donald Barlett and James Steele. Weirdly, these Pulitzer Prize winners asked what went wrong about an era when things finally went right. Despite the complete lack of any factual foundation for their screed, which was anecdotal and economically ignorant, the book was a best-seller and, a bit later, was the Bible of Bill Clinton’s Presidential campaign.
In 1991, the St. Paul Pioneer Press excerpted America: What Went Wrong? in a seemingly endless series. I’ve always been afflicted by a sense of physical discomfort in the presence of untruth. This book didn’t just make me uncomfortable, it enraged me, and Scott too. Scott has recorded the details of how the Pioneer Press series launched our writing career, which began with a column in that newspaper which–if I say so myself–demolished the reporters’ fantasy in a mere 750 words.
That was the beginning. Over the next couple of years, we swung into action over and over again, defending the Reagan legacy against the lies and distortions of the left. In this effort, I was motivated in part by dismay at the dishonesty of people who, a few years earlier, had been my fellow Democrats.
Over time, we branched out. We wrote about Al Gore’s global warming hoax in 1992. We (Scott, mostly) wrote an influential critique of a Minnesota Supreme Court-sponsored report on purported racism in the Minnesota court system. In 1995, we wrote a rather well-known paper called The Truth About Income Inequality for the Center of the American Experiment. Shortly thereafter, the Center sponsored a debate between me and Democratic Congressman Martin Sabo, who represented the City of Minneapolis, on that topic. It was quite an event; it drew a large crowd and front-page coverage in local newspapers. C-Span broadcasted the debate; you can watch it here.
During the years following our first effort in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Scott and I wrote dozens of op-ed columns which appeared in papers across the country, along with magazine articles and longer research pieces. Somewhat to our surprise, everything we ever wrote was published. Along the way, what had started as a lark became a more serious commitment, as I became increasingly convinced that liberalism is not only a dishonest movement, but one that threatens my children’s futures.
Then the internet came along. I described here how Scott, Paul and I founded this web site in 2002. What we have done here has largely continued what Scott and I began, long ago, when we decided that someone needed to defend Ronald Reagan against the smears of the left, and it might as well be us.
So that is the story of how Ronald Reagan made me first a conservative, and then a conservative pundit.