Monday, January 21, 2008

Obama and Reagan: Naive or cynical?

There's been a lot of justifiable hoo-ha over the past few days over Barack Obama's comments seeming to laud Ronald Reagan. Obama's comments, which miss the mark by a wide margin, omit the fact that Reagan didn't invent the movement that swept him to power, nor did he create that same movement which occupied and guided his government. Reagan was but a figurehead for a power coalition led by conservative philanthropists like the Coors, Scaife, the Koch brothers of Kansas, the Smith Richardsons, and the racist Bradley brothers of Milwaukee.

What an insult to hear Obama say that the Republican party has been the party of ideas over the past few decades! Yes - the ideas of scientific racism of Charles Murray were current, but they weren't new. It is just not true that Republicans had the "new ideas" - they may have had ideas, but they were the same old discredited Republican ideas of the past - deregulate corporations, cut taxes on the wealthy, etc. What was different was that people who controlled the party from without - an apparat - had seized control of the American discourse, and shoved the whole thing to the right. People may have thought the Republicans were turning into the party of the little guy, and of freedom, but that was an intentional ruse perpetrated on low-information voters to bamboozle them into voting against their own interests, and it worked. Now Barack Obama is spouting similar sounding nonsense.

Is Obama being intentionally naive here, or is this entreaty to low-information voters a cynical ploy? Does Obama really think the problem in Washington is that there hasn't been a politician who just says "Can't we all get along?" The simple answer to that question is, no we can't get along; progressives have been getting their noses shoved in by Republican bullies for three decades. That's not going to change just because a politician shows up asking them to play nice. Does Obama really think that he's going to sit down with the Republicans, the drug companies, the insurance companies, the manufacturers, etc., and get them to willingly give up some money and power? That's not only not likely, it's an idiotic strategy that plays right into the Republicans' hands, and is destined to failure.

UPDATE: I might add that the Republicans have a had a campaign to practically immortalize Reagan by having memorials to him built in all 50 states, and name buildings and whatnot after him, like he was some kind of saint. Obama's comments play right into this narrative. Just because Reagan was able to peel away some Democratic votes does not mean he was a benign uniter; he was a destroyer of progressive values who rode a movement to power and then employed that same movement to use the government to achieve their goals.

UPDATE II: Scarecrow at FDL is skeptical of Obama as well, but noted this after one of his speeches yesterday:
The unity Obama is calling for does not sound like DLC centrism; it's more like a precursor to struggle, not only against our own weaker instincts but against powerful beliefs, institutions and interests. You can read it as class struggle, even ideological struggle.

Does he mean it? Can he deliver? Of course, those have been the real questions about Obama all along: is he real, or are we so hungry for leadership we're willing to read whatever we want into his rhetoric?
Meanwhile, Paul Krugman debunks the "Reagan myth:"

...I’d say that the great failure of the Clinton administration ... was the fact that it didn’t change the narrative, a fact demonstrated by the way Republicans are still claiming to be the next Ronald Reagan.

Now progressives have been granted a second chance to argue that Reaganism is fundamentally wrong: once again, the vast majority of Americans think that the country is on the wrong track. But they won’t be able to make that argument if their political leaders, whatever they meant to convey, seem to be saying that Reagan had it right.


Mark Gisleson said...

Rob, I would encourage you to check out the entirety of Obama's remarks a little more closely. He was ripped out of context by the Clinton campaign. Hillary herself has put Reagan on her list of "favorite" presidents.

Rob Levine said...

Mark - I did hear his comments in their entirety. The fact that Hillary put Reagan on her list makes her just as bad. Bill Clinton in fact rode the same wave as Reagan - he was just a little less extreme.

Mark Gisleson said...

Thanks for the updates. Still finding it hard to wax too enthusiastically about Obama, but context helps.