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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

You Sir, Are No Ronald Reagan

by digby

... and thank God for that.

I'm a bit baffled by this statement by Senator Obama:

"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."

I hate to say it because I'm going to get mercilessly roasted alive, but with all that jargon about government growing and growing without "accountability in terms of how it was operating" and "dynamism" and "entrepreneurship" it sounds an awful lot like DLC boiler plate. They capitulated to the "Reagan Revolution" hype exactly that way in the 1980's and developed an entire political strategy around it. Here's their biggest star, with the movement fully realized in 1992:

In the global economy of the 1990s, economic growth won't come from government spending. It will come instead from individuals working smarter and learning more, from entrepreneurs taking more risks and going after new markets, and from corporations designing better products and taking a longer view...

Too many Washington insiders of both parties think the only way to provide more services is to spend more on programs already on the books in education, housing, and health care. But if we reinvent government to deliver new services in different ways, eliminate unnecessary layers of management, and offer people more choices, we really can give taxpayers more services with fewer bureaucrats for the same or less money.

The idea was to go to the middle, work with moderate Republicans to "get things done" in new and modern ways --- the third way, actually. The thanks that pragmatic Democrat got was that the Republicans (with the help of the press) mercilessly harassed him, impeached him and then stole the election from his successor. From where I sit today it didn't work out too well for Democrats in the long run. (And I'm not sure either Bill or Hill have actually absorbed that ugly truth either --- or took the right lessons from it.)

I'm not saying that Obama is DLC. But the interpretation of that election as being a reaction against liberalism and big government certainly is and that acceptance of their myth has served conservatives very well. There's a reason their movement has developed this ridiculous St. Ronnie hagiography --- it's to inextricably associate their dark, divisive ideology with his carefully manufactured cheerful persona. It protects their movement from the harmful consequences of their wrecking ball policies. "We're not like those losers --- we're the party of Reagan, the sunny, optimistic, winner everybody loved! Look, here's our new Reagan! Vote for him!" (Check this scary thing out. And this from the man who said bipartisanship is date rape.)

I get that Obama is signaling that he sees this election as a game changing election like 1980. And he may very well be right about that. I hope so. But it's disconcerting to hear him casually recount these Republican arguments without a clear disclaimer, as if it's a matter of fact not opinion. People may have believed in 1980 that the "excesses" of the 1960's and the 1970's were the cause of all their problems and that government had "grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating" but that doesn't make it true. Republican propaganda conveniently offered up all kinds of scapegoats for the fact that the US was reeling from Vietnam, Watergate, a terrible oil shock --- and a lousy economy as a result of all those things. An awful lot of the "excesses" Reagan spoke of in carefully coded speech had to do with civil rights and more urgently at the time, integration, specifically busing, which was one of the hot buttons that drove the "Reagan Democrats" outside the south to the Republicans. And then there was the relentless, militant fear mongering about the Evil Empire ...

Remember, Reagan didn't run on "Morning in America" in 1980. That was 1984. 1980 was the much more aggressive, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"

Look, I know this is weedy stuff and probably doesn't matter to the average voter under the age of 45. But to long time liberals who lived through this period as an adult, it's like waving a red flag in our faces. Reagan ran explicitly against the left(and in the process normalized the kind of indecent talk that made Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter millionaires.) Because he won big in 1984, leaders in both parties accepted this omnipotent Reagan myth and have run against liberalism ever since --- and have ended up, through both commission and omission, advancing the destructive conservative policies that brought us to a place where we are debating things like torture. It would be helpful if ending the era of Democrats running against the liberal base could be part of this new progressive "trajectory."

Read Rick Perlstein's excellent discussion of the fallacy of extending Reagan's rancid myth:

... accepting the right's successful fantasy-frame about what Reagan was all about surrenders to one of their most successful strategies: affecting innocence about the terrible consequences of their own ideology in the here and now—helping conservatism, as an ideology, survive to fight another day...

They are not dead yet, far from it. It's not good to help them keep their myths alive while they recover from their bloodsucking overindulgence of the past couple of decades. If it's absolutely necessary to reach out to independents and Republicans in the primary, there are better ways to do it than evoking the name of the patron saint of the radical conservative movement.

Update: I hate doing this on the wrong post, but it's necessary. To those Obama supporters who insist on making the strawman argument that I'm saying Obama will govern like Reagan, I suggest you read the post again.

I'm saying that he advanced the Reagan Myth, which was based upon conservative propaganda devised for the specific purpose of keeping the conservative movement viable even when it is out of power and restricting any possibility of advancing progressive programs. That's the whole point of the Reagan myth. I tried to point out that Democrats have been doing this, to their own disadvantage, for years now. Accepting the view that Reagan responded to the view that liberal excess and big government were ruining the country is a grave misreading. Reagan, and the conservative movement that nurtured him, created that view and its hellspawn have advanced it ever since.

But I was wrong is saying you should never evoke Reagan at all. There's a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it. Rick Perlstein, who as far as I know has taken absolutely no public position in this primary and has no dog in the fight, explained it elegantly in an email this morning:

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."

Obama failed that test.