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Obama and Reagan

January 19th, 2008

Clinton and Edwards are making a big deal over what Obama said about Ronald Reagan. Unsurprisingly, I see their attacks as being specious, unfair, and opportunistic. Here are Obama’s original words:

I don’t want to present myself as some sort of singular figure. I think part of what’s different are the times. I do think that, for example, the 1980 election was different. I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like, you know, with all the excesses of the sixties and the seventies, and government had grown and grown but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating, and he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing, alright? I think Kennedy, twenty years earlier, moved the country in a fundamentally different direction. So I think a lot of it just has to do with the times.

“I think we’re in one of those times right now. Where people feel like things as they are going aren’t working. We’re bogged down in the same arguments that we’ve been having, and they’re not useful. And, you know, the Republican approach, I think, has played itself out. I think it’s fair to say the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last ten, fifteen years, in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom. Now, you’ve heard it all before. You look at the economic policies when they’re being debated among the Presidential candidates and it’s all tax cuts. Well, you know, we’ve done that, we tried it. That’s not really going to solve our energy problems, for example. So, some of it’s the times. And some of it’s, I think, there’s maybe a generation element to this, partly. In the sense that there’s a, I didn’t did come of age in the battles of the 60’s. I’m not as invested in them.

”And so I think I talk differently about issues. And I think I talk differently about values. And that’s why, I think we’ve been resonating with the American people.“

What Obama is saying is very objective, analytical, and correct: with Reagan, there was a turning point that he sensed and took advantage of. Neither Nixon nor Clinton changed things the way Reagan did; Reagan, and later his followers, sensed frustration and a desire for a significant turn in the way things worked. (They didn’t call it the ”Reagan Revolution“ for nothing, after all.) Whether or not you like the direction Reagan took us in, you cannot deny that he took us there. As for ”being the party of ideas,“ that again does not mean that the ideas were good, it means that they were forwarding new ideas–like the ”Contract with America,“ for example–that the public responded to, while the Democrats did not forward similarly coherent and revolutionary concepts. It does not matter that the Republicans completely reneged on that deal, which was vague and jingoistic to begin with. The point is that they won hearts and minds with the words and ideas they put forth, and the times were ripe for the public to respond to them in a transformational way. Clinton didn’t do the same thing; as much as I admire what he did as president and see him as the best president since Kennedy, he did not achieve what he did by transforming the political scene–rather, he played to it, rode it to the successes he enjoyed.

What Obama is saying is that he senses that the public has reached the same cusp now that we saw when Reagan came on to the scene; that after seven years of Bush and Cheney, the Republican tax-cuts-will-fix-everything freight train has run out of fuel; that again, the American people are tired of the way things were, and are ready to change in a significant way. The pendulum has risen as far as it can to one side, and it is heavy and primed to swing back, and swing back big. Obama makes a point about how he addresses values and issues in a different manner, with a different voice, and that is what resonates with this hope and expectation of revolution.

But that’s not how Clinton and Edwards are spinning Obama’s comments. They are taking the rather base political approach of appealing to the simplistic; they take the words ”Reagan,“ ”party of ideas,“ and ”changed the trajectory of America,“ they completely ignore the context and overall meaning of Obama’s message, and then they try to paint him as a Reagan-lover who is praising Republicans and betraying Democratic principles. Hillary said:

”I have to say, you know, my leading opponent the other day said that he thought the Republicans had better ideas than Democrats the last ten to fifteen years. That’s not the way I remember the last ten to fifteen years.

“I don’t think it’s a better idea to privatize Social Security. I don’t think it’s a better idea to try to eliminate the minimum wage. I don’t think it’s a better idea to undercut health benefits and to give drug companies the right to make billions of dollars by providing prescription drugs to Medicare recipients. I don’t think it’s a better idea to shut down the government, to drive us into debt.”

See? She’s painting it as if Obama was in favor of all of those stupid policies the Republicans have been chasing, when in fact, Obama was saying the opposite. Edwards was little better:

I would never use Ronald Reagan as an example of change…

He was openly — openly — intolerant of unions and the right to organize. He openly fought against the union and the organized labor movement in this country. He openly did extraordinary damage to the middle class and working people, created a tax structure that favored the very wealthiest Americans and caused the middle class and working people to struggle every single day. The destruction of the environment, you know, eliminating regulation of companies that were polluting and doing extraordinary damage to the environment…

I can promise you this: This president will never use Ronald Reagan as an example for change.

While Edwards did not as directly accuse Obama of approving of conservative principles, he did give that general impression. As for “never using Ronald Reagan as an example for change,” that is more dogmatic than rational. Perhaps, in the context of not wanting the kind of change Reagan brought, that could make sense–but in an objective, intellectual manner, Obama hit the nail on the head. And again, Edwards is suggesting that Obama approved of the type of change, when in fact Obama was not doing anything of the sort.

In short, Edwards was saying that he viewed Reagan’s changes as so toxic that we should purge them from our minds and not acknowledge much of what they were. And I think that’s not smart. Obama has the right idea: see things for what they were, and leave the partisan invective at the door. Obama not only made a good point, but by recognizing what Reagan did and not trashing him (as much as I dearly love to do myself), Obama opened the door to many independent and even Republican voters who would never vote for Edwards or Clinton.

Obama was not compromising his principles or ideals, he was objectively and accurately using a historical example to demonstrate an opportunity to change the nation to recognize and embrace liberal ideals, in a way that even many conservatives could accept.

Remember what I said a month ago about “Obama Republicans,” just like we used to have “Reagan Democrats”? This is what I was talking about. And either Clinton and Edwards just don’t see that, or they do and are hypocritically attacking it in a fit of political opportunism–and in doing so, are passing up a powerful weapon that could be used to assure a big Democratic victory this coming November.

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  1. Tim Kane
    January 20th, 2008 at 01:59 | #1

    Well, I think you are being a little hard on Clinton and Edwards here and maybe a little naive as well, and maybe on purpose.

    This is a presidential campaign for the nomination of the Democratic party. Candidates had to distinguish themselves as best they can. Overall there’s not a great deal of difference between these candidates, so where there are differences you can only expect them to be amplified.

    I will say I think both you and Obama are right. Hopefully we are near an inflection point in our politics; a major inflection point. Hopefully.

    But as Krugman pointed out recently, Obama is running to the right of both Hillary and Edwards: on social security, on health care, and whatever else Krugman mentioned. I understand the strategical reasons for that, he’s black, he has a muslim middle name, he’s basically a liberal democrat. Being to the right of the other candidate helps him cope with some of that – he doesn’t want to be viewed as Al Sharpton. Bringing up Reagan also helps get those Reagan Democrats to become Obama Republicans.

    But it is also the primary season and this is for the nominatioin of the democratic party. The other candidates need to find a way to point out that Obama is running to the right of them. They are searching for a way to do that. When Obama brings up Reagan he opens the door to that sort of thing. It’s politics. I think that has to be expected. It’s not the general election. It’s to early to mention Reagan and not expect to be penalized somewhat for that by the opposition. In fact, I would say that they were conceding the nomination to Obama if they didn’t take the opportunity he gave them, and you can’t expect them to just concede to Obama because he’s factually right but oratorically vulnerable. They all need democratic votes. When he mentioned Reagan, that created the opportunity for Hillary and Edwards to point out that he’s running to the right of them on the issues.

    I keep remembering FDR’s 1944 campaign speech where he brought up his dog Fala being offended by political criticism. He won the campaign right there. I think Hillary hit a similar cord when she said “that hurts my feelings” during the debate. Really her best moment (and I am not a big Hillary fan), like FDRs and it was great fun to see that kind of stuff happening again.

    Really, I think this is great stuff, and a presidential season to remember. I just hope it doesn’t end up like 1992 in reverse (in that year the Dems were in disarray, Bush looked like a lock, and Clinton came from no where, perhaps with the help of Ross Perot, to win it).

    So I just want to say that, while I think you are right factually, I think you are maybe being a little naive, by maybe a half measure, on the political process.

  2. Luis
    January 20th, 2008 at 10:57 | #2

    Tim: I don’t think I can agree with you on this one; Obama may be running to the right of Edwards, but he is not running to the right of Clinton. If anything, she is to the right of Obama, more in actions than in words, but even in words, Hillary has accused Obama of being “too liberal,” citing his association with lefty groups and his stands on mandatory minimums as examples. I don’t hold Krugman as being all that objective about Obama; he got negative on Obama a while back because Krugman backs Edwards and wants Obama out of the way, and has been uncharacteristically erratic on him since the debate over health care mandates. True, Obama is to the right on health care, but only very marginally so, and in ways that probably won’t matter as much in the long run. In fact, if elected, Obama would probably have a much better chance at getting a more liberal health care plan enacted than Hillary–as Hillary has been forever marked by the Republicans as someone they must defeat when it comes to health care plans–lest they be shown to be wrong when they thwarted her health care plan back in the early 80’s.

    As for candidates distinguishing themselves from their rivals, I have no problem with that. But there is a difference between distinguishing oneself and smearing the opponent by misrepresenting the truth, and both Hillary and Edwards crossed that line.

  3. Tim Kane
    January 20th, 2008 at 15:00 | #3

    Well, I don’t think its the same as Swift boating but point taken. Also, I have found Krugman’s comments on Obama a bit uncharacteristic of him. Oddly, even Krugman is reluctant to mention Edward’s name.

    Also you didn’t mention Social Security.

    I’m an economic Democrat. Nothing else matters if the economic side isn’t correct.

    None of the candidates are perfect. Policies are most important. Coat tails are a close second, and the ability to cajole congress a close third. And the elite will not surrender their perks and privileges just because Obama gets elected.

    Corporate media want Hillary to win, exactly for the reasons you say, she electrifies and unifies the Republican party and she deflates and divides democrats and she’ll happily work with corporations at least until her second term. She’s even hinted at that. The media like Obama second. If you think Hillary and Edwards smeared Obama on the Reagan comment, you haven’t heard anything yet. The swiftboaters will have the electorate thinking he wants to establish his own caliphate on the Potomac river if he gets nominated.

    The media have blacked out Edwards name. In my mind, nothing could recommend him more. They don’t want his policies and they don’t want his effect on the electorate and they don’t want his coat tails.

    Again he’s not the perfect candidate because as a Senator he voted for all the things he campaigns against. That kind of makes him Bobby Kennedy-esque. But at least he campaigns for the right things.

    While they are not all perfect, they are all very good. If Hillary gets elected I could live with the kind of administration we had when her husband was president which was well run. I would hope that Obama would move to the left on economic issues a bit once elected. I’m inclined to think that two years will be wasted while he tries to get all the parties sitting at the table. He’ll find that corporations cooperate with him right up until something of substance emerges, and then they’ll be absent at the table. In two years time he’ll realize he’s wasted his time and political capital on them.

    That’s my sense of things anyway.

  4. Luis
    January 20th, 2008 at 16:09 | #4

    Also you didn’t mention Social Security.

    I’d like to focus on this for a moment. Can you explain how they differ? Looking at both candidates’ web sites, they seem to be in lockstep. Both oppose privatization, both approve of increasing the maximum amount of earnings covered by Social Security (though both describe it differently). Neither site gets no more specific than that; one would think that if Edwards wanted to differentiate, he might do it there.

    I know that many have hit Obama for saying that Social Security is in danger, but if his plans and Edwards’ are the same, what does it matter?

    So how do they differ in their plans? How is Obama more conservative?

  5. Tim Kane
    January 21st, 2008 at 04:53 | #5

    Actually I am studying for a Bar exam (again) and I don’t really have time to research this. As I recall, the objection that Krugman had had to do with the adoption of Republican Talking points and framing of issues regarding Social Security. If memory serves, which these days it isn’t, the issue is that Social Security isn’t really in trouble, especially compared to other government programs, like medicare. The biggest threat to Social Security is movement conservativism which has had its mark on Social Security since its inception. In fact, you could say that opposing Social Security it the organizing principle behind movement conservatism.

    I believe that Krugman has pointed out, and is correct on this point, that Social Security and universal health care are bookends to our modern day political battlefield. If we achieve universal health care, we will move into a new golden age of sorts for the American middle class and the Neocons/movement conservatives will have lost. If we lose Social Security, then its the gilded age all over again. George Bailey and Henry F. Potter are still doing battle and these days Potter is winning.

    So campaign rhetoric that adopts movement conservativisms talking points and framing of Social Security is no small thing. Maybe Obama’s backers are incline to overlook this and see it as part of pulling America together. I see it as part of pulling America apart.

    Some of this is how you see or frame the political struggles taking place. Conservative Andrew Sullivan got behind Obama in a land mark essay called “Goodbye To All That” – saying that Obama was the beginning of post Baby Boom politics (I think, if memory serves). That the nation is torn apart between baby boom political groupings of liberals and conservatives, over things like Vietnam, Civil Rights, Civil Liberties etc… and that the Bushes and the Clintons are proxies to this battle, therefore by voting for Obama you can say good bye to all of that. You also can say goodbye to the Civil War and our institutional racism in this country (no big thing there). You can also say goodbye to a flawed view and failed strategy approach to the Islamic Terrorism thing. You can also say goodbye to our pariah status among the international community. These are no small things. And even if only some of it were true, they would be enormous advances. And maybe Obama’s gifted rhetoric will paper over our problems with Religion, which didn’t exist outside a small fringe, in my mind, 30 years ago.

    But I think all these things are just tools and pawns being manipulated in the ongoing battle between Mr. Potter and George Bailey. The organizing principle behind Republican successes has been movement conservativism. They invested heavily in creating institutions that effectively enlisting every dissenting franchise, and manipulated everything from religion to patriotism to distract and draw people into voting for a set of civics that can only leave America looking like a banana republic.

    So this is a big issue, and it is no issue. Depending upon how you frame it. Words mean everything, or they mean nothing, depending upon how you frame it. But to me the real battle in our politics is between Mr. Potter and George Bailey. And concerning the Mr. Potters, like Churchill said of the Germans, they are either at your feet or at your throat. But they are only at your feet if you exercise dominion over them. They won’t give that up. They worked to hard for it. If you want them at the table, you have to have them muzzled and fully under control and I don’t see how Obama can magically get them to give up all they have been fighting for simply by offering them a seat at the table after having shown a good faith effort to them by adopting their talking points on Social Security. They’ll see that as a sign of weakness. And they believe that they own the table that Obama’s inviting them to sit at anyway.

    Finally, there’s the issue of swiftboating Obama in the general. Obama’s a great rhetorical politician, but I think the swiftboating will end up canceling out and neutralizing that advantage. If there’s a way to do it they will do it. And my 79 year old father, who loves to listen to Fox, Hannity and Limbaugh already believes that Obama is a Muslim Manchurian candidate for Al Quaida, and is out to ruin the United States. (I pointed out that he couldn’t do worse then Bush, but for my father, life and events are starting to pass him buy like a horse and buggy trying to merge onto the freeway). By the time they are done with him, Obama might win over some republicans, but they won’t be republicans living in red states, and the electoral map will end up looking like 2000 and 2004, even if he manages to win the general. That would hardly be a unifying map.

    In my mind, Edwards is right on the Issues. (Its only because of Edwards that Hillary and Obama have announced progressive policy positions). The real battle is economic, between Henry Potter and George Bailey. Not acknowledging that is a BIG step backward (first step in solving a problem is acknowledging you have one, which means identifying it correctly). Second, Edwards poles as being the only Democrat that beats John McCain. Think about that. Edwards is the Democrat that has the best chance of bringing new states for the Dems, which is especially important in swinging the senate over to the Dems with 61+ Lieberman Dems. (The coat tail issues).

    The latest evidence suggest that the rank and file Republicans have gone pragmatic. They’ve seen the poles and they are leaning towards McCain. But thanks to the media’s influence we are currently drifting towards Hillary. Hillary unites and motivates the Republicans better than any single republican candidate. If Obama or Hillary gets the nomination, it is a giant step forward in many ways for American culture. But for the democrats its nothing more than a moral victory if they lose the general.

    That is the way of the democrats, moral victories, electoral losses. I don’t think we can afford that.

    I suppose I am cynical. But I know lots and lots of Republicans. They’d never vote for Hillary, they might vote for Obama to say “goodbye to all that”, but that’s until the swiftboating comes around and the local Bishop reminds them that a vote for Obama requires attending confession before going to communion again. Edwards might make them think twice. An Edwards nomination would force everyone to look at the Economic data of what’s happened in the last 30 years, that the economies GNP has doubled but wages for average families has actually gone DOWN. Then all they have to do is imagine what their life might be like if they made 50% more. At that point the real transformation begins.

    My view, anyway. Real economic transformation trumps Obama’s feel good unity and ‘goodbye to all that’. “Goodbye to all that trumps” only narrowly, the Clinton’s track record of fundamentally sound administration. Hillary’s promise of sound administration is a nice consolation prize for a surprisingly good campaigning year for all. Unfortunately, because the media is behind her, and they can make her look like a winner, and everyone wants to vote for a winner, I think Hillary will be our candidate.

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