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Friday, January 18, 2008

Game Changing Strategy

by digby

So, I see that Edwards and Clinton are jumping hard on Senator Obama's Reagan comments and Obama supporters seem to think it's below the belt. (I think it's entirely to be expected: they're dogwhistling appealing to the traditional, liberal base, who hate Reagan with a passion.)

I've tried to explain why it's bad for progressives to validate the conservative myth that the country was tired of liberalism and big government and so voted en masse for Ronald Reagan. There are so many straw men fighting among themselves on that now that I'm going to leave it where it is.

But I'll try once again, in a different way, to explain why his comments were ill advised.

Here again are the comments in question:

"What I'm saying is I think the average baby-boomers have moved beyond the arguments of the 60's but our politicians haven't. We're still having the same argument... It's all around culture wars and it's all ... even when you discuss war the frame of reference is all Vietnam. Well that's not my frame of reference. My frame of reference is "what works." Even when I first opposed the war in Iraq, my first line was I don't oppose all wars, specifically to make clear that this is not an anti-military, you know, 70's love-in kind of approach."

"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 with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, 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."

Let's assume for the sake of argument that he right. And then ask yourself if Ronald Reagan would have "changed the trajectory" back in '80 with a similar kind of rhetoric:

"We're still having the same arguments. It's all around regulations and smaller government and it's all ... even when you discuss traditional values the frame of reference is all around abortion. Well, that's not my frame of reference. My frame of reference is "what works." When I first came out against abortion, my first line was I don't oppose all abortions, specifically, to make clear that this is not a theocratic, you know, snake-handling prayer vigil kind of approach."

"I think Lyndon Johnson changed the trajectory of the country in a way that JFK did not and Nixon did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of racism and anti-communism and government refusing to raise taxes to care for the poor and the elderly, I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was, we want a return to that sense of community and compassion that had been missing."

I'm sure that many Democrats would have ben reassured by those comments but does anyone think his Republican rivals in 1980 wouldn't have jumped all over him for that? And wouldn't that argument have made a lot of Republicans wonder if he was actually as conservative as he said he was?

Reagan, ofcourse, would have never said any of that. He knew it was a huge political moment and changed the trajectory of the country by forcefully asserting the merits and superiority of conservatism and (falsely)making people believe it was the failures of liberalism that had brought them low. He used the language developed by the conservative movement over the previous two decades and never gave the liberals a rhetorical inch. He did it all with panache and good humor, but he was merciless with Democrats and used every opportunity to sell conservatism, not distance himself from it.

I agree with Obama that this is a potentially game changing election like 1980. And I am open to the idea that he's the guy to do it. He's young, he's brilliant, he's a fresh face with immense political skills. What I don't get is why he keeps using conservative phrases and adopting hot button conservative issues like social security when it's so unnecessary. If the people are there, then why keep using this tired old crap to appeal to the middle? I understand that he doesn't want to run as a traditional liberal and that's fine. I don't think he should. But people also don't need that stale stuff about love-ins and "entrepreneurship" or "fixing social security" or dissing "trial lawyers" or they'd vote for Rudy McRomney. They want something new. Give it to them.

If he wants to change the trajectory as Reagan did then he should take a page from his political strategy instead of his rhetoric, stop praising him and bury conservatism instead.