Thursday, January 17, 2008

Reagan-Clinton in '08

Naturally, Obama is getting slammed, by Edwards and others, for praising Reagan in an interview with the editorial board of the The Reno Gazette-Journal early this week:
I don't want to present myself as some sort of singular figure. I think part of what's different are the times. I do think that for example the 1980 was different. 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.
This is absolut Obama. As with most of his flashpoints, this is the fruit of long meditation, the development of a philosophy of power that's really been a lifelong project, and a continuation of his critique of Clintonian incrementalism delivered in the pre-New Hampshire debate (and discussed here). At the same time, Obama here is telling a simple empirical truth that most Democrats don't want to hear. Reagan did catch the country's mood and did change the country's direction - directly, by articulating and sticking to a few simple principles, in contrast to Clinton, who skillfully effected incremental change under the radar. Part of the difference is that the Republicans were a harder-assed opposition than the Democrats, part of it that Clinton squandered tons of political capital early -- and then again, once he'd won reelection, through Monica Lewinsky.

Much of the difference was character - and that's not all to Clinton's detriment. He is multiples smarter than Reagan was, and in a thousand details of spending and tax policy, he made government more effective and more responsive to the needs of less privileged people. After Reagan put liberalism on a diet, Clinton figured out ways to do more with less. Obama is really breathtakingly ambitious. What he's really trying to tell us, without breaking the modesty barrier, is that he combines Reaganite clarity of vision and Clintonian intellect.

Admittedly, Obama's paean to Reagan doesn't get into the really hard part for Democrats: that Reagan's stewardship through the disintegration of the Soviet Union was remarkable, and that a large part of "what people were already feeling" when he took office was that the United States needed to confront the Soviets more aggressively. Acccording to Robert Gates, Reagan was probably the only person in his government who believed his own "peace through strength" rhetoric -- that is, believed that if we convinced the Soviets they could not outspend and outarm us, we would be able to negotiate reductions in nuclear weapons - indeed, he believed we could negotiate an end to nuclear weapons. When Gorbachev began to change Soviet behavior abroad, Reagan was ready to deal. He didn't 'cause' the Soviet breakdown but he midwifed it very skillfully, as did Bush Sr. after him.

Many brands of bipartisanship are pious blather. The deepest bipartisanship, though, is recognition that a one-party state is not a good thing, that if your side won all the time they would screw things up, and that the electorate tacks back and forth between ideological poles, much as competent presidents themselves tend to tack between rival camps within their own administrations. Obama is bidding to tap into this deep bipartisanship. That means hurting Democratic feelings.

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