Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Reagan Legacy in Campaign '08

Jane Hamsher at FireDogLake tried to take President Ronald Reagan down a notch or two yesterday:

No, Ronald Reagan didn't appeal to people's optimism, he appealed to their petty, small minded bigotry and selfishness. Jimmy Carter told people to tighten their energy belts and act for the good of the country; Ronald Reagan told them they could guzzle gas with impunity and do whatever the hell they wanted. He kicked off his 1980 campaign talking about "state's rights" in Philadelphia, Mississippi -- the site of the murder of three civil rights workers in 1964's Freedom Summer. He thus put up a welcome sign for "Reagan Democrats," peeling off white voters who were unhappy with the multi-ethnic coalition within the Democratic Party.

One of his first acts was to fire 11,000 air traffic controllers in 1981 -- one of the most devastating union busting moves of the past century. And his vision of deregulation didn't free the country up for entrepreneurship, it opened it up for the wholesale thievery of the savings & loan crisis. He popularized the notion that all government is bad government and in eight short years put in place the architecture for decades of GOP graft and corruption.

There's enough hagiography of Reagan on the right, I don't think Democrats really need to go there.
Hamsher means Barack Obama doesn't need to go there. Obama speaks of Ronald Reagan tapping into a widescale span of national discontent, a reservoir of demand for change. Hamsher's repsponse, to me, illustrates, the fundamental irrationality of many on the left. Obama's not endorsing Reagan's policies; he recognizing his ability to generate a movement.

Perhaps there's some self-reflection there, for Obama - unlike any other candidate in the race this year - has captured this season's underlying dynamic of change. He represents a break from the past - he's an agent for the new.

Andrew Sullivan in his cover story at Altlantic last month put it forcefully:

What does he offer? First and foremost: his face. Think of it as the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan. Such a re-branding is not trivial—it’s central to an effective war strategy. The war on Islamist terror, after all, is two-pronged: a function of both hard power and soft power. We have seen the potential of hard power in removing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. We have also seen its inherent weaknesses in Iraq, and its profound limitations in winning a long war against radical Islam. The next president has to create a sophisticated and supple blend of soft and hard power to isolate the enemy, to fight where necessary, but also to create an ideological template that works to the West’s advantage over the long haul. There is simply no other candidate with the potential of Obama to do this. Which is where his face comes in....
Read Sullivan's essay in full; he's a gifted political analyst.

But back to the issue at hand: What is it with Hamsher? The political strategy of the radical screechers at FireDogLake is political demonization.

Why should President Reagan's legacy be safe? At the time, Reagan was despised by the African-American community for dramatically cutting domestic programs - like welfare - geared to that constiuency. He was also reviled by peace activists for his staunch anti-Communism, his vigorous support of U.S. strategic supremacy, his unflinching promotion of American values abroad, and especially his backing of anti-Communist insurgencies in the Third World.

Victor David Hanson discusses Reagan today in
an essay at Real Clear Politics:

Ronald Reagan's presidency was a great success. He rebuilt a chaotic U.S. military and helped end the Cold War. Reagan's radical tax cuts in 1981 spurred economic growth and redefined the relationship between U.S. citizens and their government. And he appointed conservative federal judges and bureaucrats who tried to roll back the half-century trend of expanded governmental control over our lives.

Reagan's nice-guy charm made it difficult for even his critics to stay angry with him for long. But he was no mere smiling dunce, as liberal intellectuals used to snicker. His private papers and diaries instead reveal that he was widely informed, read voraciously, drew on a powerful intellect and was an effective writer.

It is no wonder that conservative leaders - especially the current crop of Republican presidential hopefuls - now constantly evoke Ronald Reagan's successful presidency. In contrast, they rarely hearken back to the uprightness of the one-term Gerald Ford, or praise the foreign-policy accomplishments of the two Bush Republican presidencies.

Instead, the candidates try to "out-Reagan" each other by claiming they alone are the true Reaganites while their rivals in the primaries are too liberal, flip-floppers or without consistent conservative principles.

In short, Ronald Reagan has been beatified into some sort of saint, as if he were above the petty lapses and contradictions of today's candidates. The result is that conservatives are losing sight of Reagan the man while placing unrealistic requirements of perfection on his would-be successors.
Hanson goes on to note that all the GOP candidates are tripping over each other to grasp the mantle of the Reagan legacy. But Reagan made mistakes, and Hanson wants to remember both the good and bad.

That's a reasonable way to look at the Reagan record - much more reasonable, in fact, compared to the demonization project over at FDL.


UPDATE: It turns out Obama's comments on Reagan pissed off more lefties than Hamsher's Henchmen.

Matt Stoller at Open Left had this to say about Obama:

There are many reason progressives should admire Ronald Reagan, politically speaking. He realigned the country around his vision, he brought into power a new movement that created conservative change, and he was an extremely skilled politician. But that is not why Obama admires Reagan. Obama admires Reagan because he agrees with Reagan's basic frame that the 1960s and 1970s were full of 'excesses' and that government had grown large and unaccountable.

Those excesses, of course, were feminism, the consumer rights movement, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, and the antiwar movement. The libertarian anti-government ideology of an unaccountable large liberal government was designed by ideological conservatives to take advantage of the backlash against these 'excesses'.

It is extremely disturbing to hear, not that Obama admires Reagan, but why he does so. Reagan was not a sunny optimist pushing dynamic entrepreneurship, but but
a savvy politician using a civil rights backlash to catapult conservatives to power. Lots of people don't agree with this, of course, since it doesn't fit a coherent narrative of GOP ascendancy. Masking Reagan's true political underpinning principles is a central goal of the conservative movement, with someone as powerful as Grover Norquist seeking to put Reagan's name on as many monuments as possible and the Republican candidates themselves using Reagan's name instead of George Bush's in GOP debates as a mark of greatness. Why would the conservative movement create such idolatry around Reagan? Is is because they just want to honor a great man? Perhaps that is some of it. Or are they trying to escape the legacy of the conservative movement so that it can be rebuilt in a few years, as they did after Nixon, Reagan, and Bush I?
Actually, a lot of people don't agree with this attack because it's a bunch of left-wing baloney.

The fact is that President Reagan and the GOP capitalized on a social backlash against the extremes of left-wing policies on race, right, and taxes, and the Democratic Party's descent into unbridled indenty politics, anti-merit preferences, and big government largesse.

See Thomas Edsall, Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics.

Barack Obama's not only dissed by the old-line civil rights community as "inauthentically black," but the hard-left doesn't like his moderate approach to transcending the pathologies of Democratic Party ideology.

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