Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
August 5, 2008
POLITICS: Senator, You Are No Ronald Reagan
Feast your eyes on one of the silliest things you will see this election season:
Via Kos (H/T), though even Kos has to present it without comment to keep a straight face. Where there's nonsense, of course, there's also always Andrew Sullivan to declare it "the best way to respond to Rovian tactics." One has difficulty viewing this video and imagining that it is intended to be taken seriously.
Anyway, nonsensical as the idea is that Obama in 2008 is somehow comparable to Reagan in 1980, there is quite a lot of sentiment you see these days from commentators on the left yearning for Obama to be the Left's Reagan, the guy who realigns the political landscape around his ideas. One can never predict the political future, but this, too, seems to miss some critical points about Obama and Reagan, points that go beyond the simple and stark difference between the substance of their ideas.
Similar Experience? Really?
Both Reagan and Obama burst on the national political scene as the result of a single speech given during a presidential election campaign. In Reagan's case, it was the 1964 "Time for Choosing" speech, a nationally televised 30-minute address on behalf of the Goldwater campaign; in Obama's, his 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention.
You could plausibly argue that the two men had similar experience up to that point. Obama had more political experience, 8 years as a state legislator in Springfield; Reagan, unlike Obama, had some executive experience, eight years as the head of a labor union, running the Screen Actors Guild from 1947-52 and 1959-60, and while SAG is not your usual union, it was a challenging job:
Ronald Reagan presided over Screen Actors Guild at one of the most challenging moments in our union's history, as the rise of television significantly impacted the compensation and working conditions for the nation's screen actors. Under his tenure, SAG grew significantly in size and influence as the Guild tackled issues ranging from runaway production, to fair compensation, to unity in an increasingly complex industry - all issues that remain timely to working actors today.
Reagan's role as head of SAG also brought him directly into the great national security policy debates of the day - this was the McCarthy era - including his 1947 testimony to Congress about Communist infiltration of Hollywood. One looks in vain for analogous examples of Obama's role in national security debates in the 1980s.
Reagan also had some military experience, albeit not terribly impressive, serving in the reserves from 1937-42 and making training and PR films in Hollywood during World War II. But still, eight more years in military service of any kind than Obama can point to.
Of course, what matters is what these men did with the national platform they inherited. Reagan immediately became a leading spokesman on national security issues; in 1967 he debated Robert Kennedy about the Vietnam War on national television before a hostile audience, and by all accounts mopped the floor with the Senator and former Attorney General. Obama, by contrast, kept a fairly low profile in 2005-06 as a backbench freshman Senator in the minority party. Still, you could still plausibly argue that Obama in 2008 has comparable credentials to Reagan in 1968: four years as a Senator compared to two as a Governor.
Then early in 1968, several leaders of the state Republican party came to see me and said they wanted me to run for the Republican presidential nomination on the California primary ballot the following June as a favorite-son candidate. If I did, he said the party could avert a repeat of the kind of bloody battle between moderates and conservatives that split the party so badly in 1964. I agreed with them that there were still lots of hard feelings left over from the Goldwater-Rockefeller primary fight and that a heated primary race between the three major candidates in 1968 - Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller, and George Romney - would probably reopen the wounds. But running for president was the last thing on my mind. I'd been governor for less than two years and I said it would look ridiculous if I ran for president. But they countered: "A favorite-son candidate is not the same thing as a real candidate. If you enter the primary as a favorite son, the major candidates won't enter the race, so we'll avoid a disastrous primary fight; as governor, you'll win the primary, but that only means you'll head the delegation to the convention."
Yet, that's exactly the point in his career at which Obama is insisting that he is ready. Reagan, by contrast, had a lot more to do before he won the nation's trust in 1980. Eight years, two full terms, as Governor of the nation's largest state, and the years 1967-74 were turbulent times in California. An unsuccessful national presidential campaign in 1976. Years in the 1970s mulling the great issues of the day, reading voraciously, and presenting detailed commentaries on everything from the SALT and Law of the Sea treaties to revultions in Sub-Saharan Africa to the future of Medicare. Then and only then, finally, after 16 years on the national stage, did the GOP give Ronald Reagan its nomination and present him as its candidate for the presidency.
On The Issues
Just as importantly, Reagan was Reagan, and had the lasting impact he did on our politics and American political thought, not just because of who he was and what he had done but because of what he stood for. And therein lies a major distinction.
Go back and watch some of the Reagan 1964 and Obama 2004 speeches:
What will jump out at you is that even from the very beginning of their roles on the national stage, Reagan was talking about specific issues and specific ideas, drawing stark contrasts with his party's electoral and ideological opponents. The theme of the Goldwater campaign, after all, was "a Choice, not an Echo." And Reagan addressed himself from the very beginning to the nation's challenges abroad. The personality came later; in 1964, Reagan hadn't yet learned how to integrate his genial movie-star personality with the force of his ideas, which come on hard, unfiltered and uncompromising.
Obama, by contrast, talked very largely about himself, putting his winning political persona at center stage and shunting disagreements about the issues off center stage. His speech had little enough of note to say about America's role in the world, and far from drawing contrasts, he was at pains to sell a message of unity (the theme of his speech was that Republicans were drawing false contrasts between "Red" and "Blue" America), a theme that was irreconcilable with laying down clear principles and hard truths applied to the great issues of the day. Reagan was selling ideas; Obama was selling Obama.
And so it continued. Obama's campaign has been mostly about Obama's cult of personality and the historic nature of his background. The Left wants to believe that Reagan's success was about his personal popularity and the stagecraft of his aides, but while those certainly helped, that never explained why Reagan's legacy endured long after he personally retreated from the national stage. Reagan won the presidency not just by popularity, nor even by amassing credentials like exexcutive experience, but by consistently and forcefully laying out a specific vision of America's role in the world and the role of our government at home; he left no ambiguity about those ideas, and after 16 years on the national stage he had become their leading spokesman. Not for nothing did Peggy Noonan write that even when Reagan seemed distant and aloof from his White House staff, the "idea of Reagan" was ubiquitous; everyone knew what he stood for.
The idea of Obama is simply Obama. He has not had the time nor the patience nor the platforms of a governorship, a prior national campaign or national radio and newspaper commentaries to build support for an agenda larger than himself. The dream of Obama as the Left's Reagan simply has no foundation. He will win or lose this election on Obama and nothing more.