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Hullabaloo


Monday, July 28, 2014

 
What a long strange trip it's been

by digby

The New York Times, 10 years ago today:
With a rallying cry from one of its bright young hopes, a roar from its old liberal lion and a loving endorsement from the candidate's own outspoken wife, the Democratic Party offered up John Kerry on Tuesday night as a worthy heir to the patriots of the past, ready and able to unite a nation bitterly divided by the policies and politics of the Bush administration.

''There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America,'' said Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee for the Senate from Illinois, the son of a Kenyan and a Kansan and the party's choice to deliver the keynote address.

For all the talk of a red and blue America divided by party, Mr. Obama said, ''We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states.''
I was as thrilled by that speech as anyone. It sounded so good during those years of conservative intimidation to think that the country wasn't totally dominated by Bush voters. And it wasn't. But a whole lot of people heard Obama declare that the country was really one country with shared values and political beliefs --- and that just isn't true. It never has been.

Rick Perlstein pointed out the error in that formulation a long time ago citing the Great Communicator as the example of how this sort of appeal can be done to advance your agenda while appealing to people across the aisle. (By the way, it includes making some of your enemies furious ...)
Reagan didn't praise FDR. He stole from him. As in, "This generation has a rendez vous with destiny." We should steal from Reagan too. As in: "There is no left and right. Only up or down." He would then use that intro to frame some outrageously right-wing notion as "common sense." We should do the same for left-wing ideas.

Also, use Reagan to mess with righties' heads. As in: I agree we need a Reaganite foreign policy. When Reagan realized we were caught in the crossfire of a religious civil war in Lebanon, he got the hell out. He would have done the same thing in Iraq. The rule isn't "never say anything nice about Reagan." It's "use Reagan for progressive ends."

That's quite different from the Red state/Blue state formulation Obama used. His formulation might have illustrated the nice progressive value of diversity, but it failed to advance progressive politics beyond that. And he carried that concept all the way through 2008 and beyond. As Perlstein pointed out in this article after the 2010 debacle:
Ronald Reagan scored a comfortable victory in 1980, promising a new day in Washington and the nation. Then Reaganomics ran into brick wall. Unemployment—7.4 percent at the beginning of his term—was heading toward 10 percent by the summer of 1982. The gross domestic product declined 1.8 percent. On Election Day, voters punished him by taking 27 House seats from his Republican Party, including most of the ones gained in 1980. That gave the Democrats a 269–166 seat advantage—far greater than the 51-seat advantage Republicans enjoy today.

The day after that woeful election, Reagan’s aides sent him into a press conference with defensive talking points. He tore them up. “We’re very pleased with the results,” he said, claiming that the GOP had “beat the odds” for off-year elections (he went back to 1928 to make the claim). “Wasn’t he in worse shape for 1984?” he was asked. “I don’t think so at all,” he replied. Hadn’t it been a historically uncivil campaign? He agreed—because of all the opposition did to “frighten voters.”

Barack Obama gave a press conference the day after his “shellacking” too. The contrast to Reagan couldn’t have been more stark. Ignoring the fact that the electorate had pretty much been switching their party preference every two years since 1992, he conceded the loss as an epochal sea change. “I did some talking,” he said of his meeting with Republican leaders the night before, “but mostly I did a lot of listening.” When asked about jobs, he talked about the deficit. He then boasted that when it came to what was essential to recovery, he really didn’t have essential principles at all: the answers were not to be “found in any one particular philosophy or ideology.”
Reality does bite and Reagan wouldn't have been able to sustain that position if the economy hadn't been improving, but he understood that the only way forward politically was to assert the rightness of his policies and philosophy. It was a gamble, but then it was a gamble either way.

Both Obama and Reagan won their re-elections, likely due to the improving economy as much as anything else. But Reagan had instilled a bedrock belief in a very large number of people that the conservative philosophy was the key to success. I don't think President Obama can say the same thing.

*And yes, the economic fundamentals argue something very different. This is a matter of politics in which leaders develop a sense of trust in their ideological approach with the public. It doesn't last forever, of course. As I said, reality bites. But the momentum can carry you quite a long way and a whole lot can be accomplished in its wake.

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