The Crucial Democratic Reagan Primary

This recent tussle among the Democrats over invoking Reagan—even to make an obviously pro-progressive, pro-Democratic point—reflects the character of the Democratic race and the nature of some of the lukewarm progressive response to Obama that you see expressed in the netroots. Obama cited Reagan as an example of someone who “changed the trajectory of America.” Now, as I understand modern progressive demonology regarding the 1980s, most Democrats agree with this, but often view the change in question negatively. Obama’s use of Reagan here, his rivals’ responses to it, and the criticisms from Democratic pundits and activists all capture quite nicely the main tensions on the Democratic side this election year.

Obama talks endlessly, constantly, incessantly, about change—his is allegedly the “change we can believe in,” while Edwards’ change is that for which you fight, and Clinton’s is the change that is no change at all (but for which you have to work really hard). So Obama invoked Reagan as an example of someone who could build a large political coalition and bring “change,” while Clinton belittled this as she belittles everything Obama says, because her public persona and her record, such as it is, epitomise the Democrats’ response to the Reagan years from the “defensive crouch” on foreign policy to her overall mostly “centrist” positions and she and her husband memorably demonised the Reagan years as the “decade of greed,” etc. Meanwhile Edwards is, as ever, in adversarial, fight ‘em-to-the-death mode and wants to make clear that he has no truck with any of those lousy Republicans. Yeah, John, we get it—you’re a tough guy! The typically flabbergasted netroots and progressive pundit responses were all along the lines uttered by Edwards: how dare you mention the name of the ancient enemy! For progressives, this is just the kind of seemingly conciliatory language that makes them wary of Obama, whom they regard as lacking in the necessary zeal.

At one level, I can sympathise with this response. My family and I cringed when we heard Newt Gingrich give a much more fulsome paean to FDR in January 1995 when the new Republican majority took over the House. But this is actually different—Gingrich actually admired FDR and what he did, and was making peace with FDR’s legacy, while Obama was not accepting, much less endorsing, what Reagan did. He was acknowledging that Reagan had been a significant political player who had turned the country in a different direction. In other words, he was acknowledging that Reagan was successful at implementing his agenda (or at least some of it) and thereby saying that the same opportunity might be available for Democrats in this election (with the none-too-subtle and none-too-modest implication that it would be a missed opportunity unless the Democrats nominated him). This is a clever move, in the same way that Tony Blair paying respect to Thatcher’s legacy was clever, but it entails none of the ideological baggage that usually goes with these sorts of statements. Unfortunately, because of the Democratic response to his remarks, the implicit comparison between himself and Reagan, who was vastly more qualified for the job in either 1976 or 1980, is not seen as evidence of the man’s delusions of grandeur, but is instead taken as another example of his transcendent power to unify America. Well, I’m not buying. I have generally dismissed or viewed very skeptically claims for Obama’s “transformational” potential, whether in foreign affairs or domestic politics. These theories attribute too much importance to symbolism and vague rhetoric, and they take Obama’s views too little into account. However, I might be willing to see how Obama represents the possibility of the Democrats’ reconciling themselves to Reagan and the Reagan-Bush years, in part because there may be good reason to think that the political era that began in 1980 is coming to a close.

Cross-posted at Eunomia