Reaganite Narratives and Liberal Discontent

22 01 2008

As Paul Krugman recently pointed out narratives do matter. This is especially true of narratives that purport to be rooted in political history. For example, liberal Democrats tend to view the FDR and his New Deal legacy as a vindication of an activist government. Conservative Republicans believe that President Regan ended the Cold War and exhibited moral clarity in his judgment.

In a recent interview with the Reno Gazzette- Journal, Obama touched on these very themes and how certain political figures in our history took advantage of key moments to advance very different narratives of American society. He pointed to presidents such as John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan who imposed an agenda after recognizing the mood of the country seemed to be opening to the charting of a new path. Needless to say such figures come along once a generation and their influence last about just as long.

(Watch the video in its entirety here. The section in question begins around the 18 minute mark.)

As I listened closely to his remarks, I must confessed that I winced knowing that it was going to be a campaign issue since people will twist and distort the words of their opponents for political gain. It is politics after all.

His rivals and other detractors have already pointed such remarks to suggest that Obama is not as progressive as he comes across. It’s amazing how a moment of intellectual honesty can inspire such enmity. Obama was not praising Reagan’s actual policies or his vision for the country.

If anything it seemed as Obama was hinting at, though granted not explicitly stating, how the Gipper managed to exploit the backlash against civil rights and discomfort at the size of the government better than nearly anyone else in his party and sell his ideas to the country. If there is any real admiration expressed for Reagan by Obama, then its probably for his ability to take advantage of a unique moment in time, not his politics.

But by the same token, I can understand any partisan Democrat getting upset that one of their candidates for the presidency is saying any thing complimentary about Ronald Reagan. After all, his policies did not improve the economic situation of the most impoverished in the U.S., he was not only hostile to progress on civil rights, but also subtly race baited to achieve his majority.

Reagan and his cohorts ambition of challenging conventional wisdom manifested itself in undoing all the hard won victories of the labor rights, civil rights, and women’s right movement. Liberals have every right to want to see Obama unequivocally state his vigorous disagreement with the so-called Reagan revolution if the Illinois Senator does in fact objects to their aims.

Of course, on the campaign trail no debatable historical observation will go unpunished. President Bill Clinton, the elder statesman turned attack dog, ripped into Obama for his seemingly flattering remarks of Reagan by saying

I can’t imagine any Democrat seeking the presidency would say they were the party of new ideas for the last 15 years. But it sounded good in Reno I guess,” he said. “So now it turns out you can choose between somebody who thinks our ideas or better or the Republicans had all the good ideas.

Perhaps, you could see this coming considering that Bill Clinton probably felt as if his presidency was being diminished by an upstart. Predictably enough, it also served as the prelude for Hillary Clinton criticism of Obama during last night’s debate in South Carolina.

Watch it.

I understand the desire to draw distinctions to illustrate policy differences and or even ideological dispositions. But this was just an attempt to go negative during the debate with no particular purpose other than to paint Obama as a Republican in liberal clothing, which will only resonate with the Paul Krugman’s of the world.

The only purpose this exchanged served was to reveal the simmering rage and animosity that exists between Clinton and Obama in a debate devoid of any real policy questions. Clinton comes across as hackish and Obama as the angry black man, both of whom eager to sling mud at each other. If we see more of this kind of tit for tat, voters will be turned off and the Democrats will still look like the party that cannot get its act together.

Democrats need to carry women and black folk by wide margins to take back the White House.

Does it really have to be this way?

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