Sunday, January 20, 2008

Obama on Reagan, and why it matters to me.

I haven't heard a reasonable response from Obama explaining his invocation of Reagan. I understand, as his people said in response to Edwards, that Obama was "acknowledging Reagan’s ability to change the political landscape." But that's not good enough; in fact, that completely misses the point. According to Obama, Reagan "tapped into what people were already feeling, which was, ‘We want clarity, we want optimism, we want, you know, a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing,’" Rick Perlstein has eloquently explained how wrong and dangerous that view is.

I was 28 in 1980. The nation may have been in a bad place then, but not in any of the ways advertised by the Reagan campaign. The big event of 1980, according to Reagan and the MSM, was not a 1980 event at all--it was the dragging on and on of the hostage situation in the American Embassy in Iran begun in 1979. Seems pretty trivial in these post-9/11 days, but back then everyone knew how many days it had been since the takeover. It was all a product of our long-term, oil-driven meddling in the Mid-East which, of course, was not about to improve with Reagan.

The other big event was inflation caused by OPEC raising oil prices and restricting supply. People suffered from inflation, sure, but Reagan et al. made it much, much worse by telling people they shouldn't have to put up with less heat in the winter, AC in the summer or gas in the car. And, of course, Reagan and his cronies had absolutely no intention of addressing our dependence on oil.

Elsewhere in the US, needy families got more help from food stamps and AFDC than they've ever gotten since: that was advertised as a crisis of waste, fraud and abuse and bloated government.
The US was devoting serious attention and energy to human rights around the world: that was advertised as Jimmy Carter making a fool of himself in the eyes of the world.

Meanwhile, Reagan's supporters and beneficiaries were cashing in on high energy prices, busting unions, closing plants, slashing jobs and blaming government both for supposedly being forced to do these things and for being prevented from doing them more ruthlessly--they were desperate to get their man in office so they could get their hands on all those excessive (that is, living) wages being paid to workers, and all that pension and social security money.

Maybe I'm wrong about some of the details--I wasn't particularly political in 1980--and if you weren't there maybe it is hard to imagine how Reaganism sucked the hope out of all progressive movement in the US, demonstrating that no appeal to generosity or human decency had a chance against public encouragement of ignorance, selfishness and greed. But to hear Obama speak of Reagan's change of direction as anything but an embarrassing, demoralizing, loathesome dive into the toilet is appalling. Just appalling.

1 comment:

A said...

I've come to the conclusion that reasonable people might have to agree to disagree on this one -- I thought that if you watched the entire interview, particularly the bit after Obama first brought up Reagan, where he used the argument to criticize tax cuts, it was pretty clear that he was just talking about a mode of politics, not Reagan's policies. His clarification in the debate pretty much put this one to rest for me.

A lot of us have been talking for a while about how Reagan's reframing of the political landscape was devastating for Democrats, and how to reverse that -- it's pretty standard political science fare; nothing new.

It was the basis of Clinton's 92 campaign in a lot of ways, too -- redefining the terms of the debate is more or less what "triangulation" was supposed to be, but the Clinton just never got a good opportunity to break through.

All that said, a lot of people whose opinions I respect have differed with me on this one, so I'm willing to accept that there was more room for interpretation there than I'd thought at first, and Obama should have chosen his words better. On the other hand, I don't think that the Clinton campaign's response was really on-the-level, and it does worry me that it might be so difficult for the left to talk about Reagan that politicians have to make disclaimers when distinguishing that Reagan was very effective at promoting horrible policies -- after all, that's more or less the reason why he was so dangerous to the country. Since there's not really a "How To Discuss Reaganism" rulebook out there, I feel like we should give most committed liberals the benefit of the doubt in assuming that they know the moral distinction between what Reagan did and how he was able to do it. But again, your mileage may vary, I suppose. I appreciate your view on it, too; I just wanted to offer my take :)