Baseball Crank
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.

Except that Reagan in 1968 recognized that he wasn't ready to run for president:

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."

"Okay," I said, "I'll do that, I'll enter my name as a favorite son, but that's all, and only on one condition: that our delegation be representative of all sides in this split, not just one group." They promised to balance the delegation - and they did.

By the time the convention opened in Miami Beach in early August, George Romney had lost his initial momentum and the race had boiled down to a battle between Rockefeller and Nixon, who was completing his great political comeback after the defeats of 1960 and 1962. When I arrived at the convention, I was surprised to learn quite a few delegates had pledged their support to me, but I continued to tell them I wasn't a candidate and didn't want it. But they'd just go away and say I was a candidate. Well, when the balloting took place, I got a sizable number of votes behind Nixon and Rockefeller, but Nixon had the clear majority and so I ran up to the front of the hall and jumped on the platform and asked the chairman for permission to address the convention.

At first, I was turned down because of a procedural rule, but after a minute they agreed to waive the rule and let me speak and I made a motion that the delegates nominate Richard Nixon by acclamation and they did so with a tremendous roar. Because I consented to be a favorite-son candidate that year, some people have suggested that I was bitten by the presidential "bug" back in 1968. But it wasn't true. When Nixon was nominated, I was the most relieved person in the world. I knew I wasn't ready to be president. I knew there was still lots of work to be done in Sacramento.

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.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:01 AM | Politics 2008 | Comments (11) | TrackBack (0)

Truly excellent. People tend to think of Reagan as just a President, but this piece really encapsulates the timeline of his career that shows it takes time, patience and an unwavering belief in your ideals (instead of just yourself) to be a successful transformative leader.

Posted by: Chris at August 5, 2008 8:23 AM


Posted by: RW at August 5, 2008 8:36 AM

I am increasingly bothered by the hints of arrogance coming from Obama, but your recitation of Reagan's career was a little bit one-sided.

I expect to be skewered for this, but I don't have the time for a fulsome description of the other side of the scale.

Reagan performed a great service to the country in answering the (then-real) question of whether any man was "big enough" for the Presidency and whether any President could be re-elected. (Recall Lloyd Cutler's proposal for a single six-year term.)

The histroy of Reagan's Presidnecy must include the wholesale lawlessness of the Iran/Contra episode, the inexcusable sky-rocketing of our national debt, the utter incompetence of his Cabinet appointments (Meese, Watt), and the criminality of his EPA (Gorsuch, Rita Lavelle). Even this leaves out Nancy and her horoscopes and his (I'll be polite) declining faculties toward the end of his second term.

The comparisons between Reagan and Obama are limited. Mostly, they relate to Obama's ability to communicate and move people. I don't think any job prepares any man or woman to be President. The three basic qualities are intelligence, character and temperament. For all three, Obama is clearly superior to HRC and McCain.

Posted by: Magrooder at August 5, 2008 10:12 AM

In truth, as I've said before, you never ever ever know what it is that qualifies you as president.

Lincoln was a one term rep who lost some tough senate fights, became a top flight railroad lawyer and found his voice at the Cooper Union speech on abolition.

Truman was a haberdasher and clear cut political hack who was considered, while in office (like Gerald Ford) a total moron. No question, Truman (and Ford) benefit from hindsight.

TR was considered a raving madman, and the press would probably pillory him today.

If there is a common thread that runs through our really good presidents (and great is unfair to compare anyone to), it's intelligence. Not necessarily education. Streetsmarts I think may be more apt. Jefferson was one scary smart dude, and not particularly good at presidenting (well I think it's a neat word); Magrooder, I think many of Reagan's appointments were pretty good. You named the real stinkers I grant you. Meese was so bad, W would appoint him. And education means little. I may never forgive JFK for MacNamara. McCain as president would be at best, a holding action. Which is a very poor choice. Like the Woody Allen analogy to a shark, "If a shark stops moving it dies." We are at a critical crossroads here. The basis of our economy for the last century, hydrocarbons, is a dead end. Real growth comes from developing an entirely bold and new series of sources.

Is Obama that man? I have no idea. Neither does he. But I am really sure McCain is not.

Posted by: Daryl Rosenblatt at August 5, 2008 10:34 AM

I've read that transcript a few times now - it is truly worth the read. I felt kind of sorry for Kennedy, who had the thankless task of debating Reagan and cordoning off the loonier arguments of the hard left to stake his position. That being said, Reagan took the day hands-down. I seem to remember reading about Kennedy being pissed at his staff for scheduling him after it was over.

Posted by: tsmonk at August 5, 2008 10:49 AM

I would think that for Obama to "realign the political landscape around his ideas", he'd have to be more committed to his ideas, and not trying to hide them (something Reagan didn't do). Granted, FDR (who actually is the left's Reagan) was pretty much a noncommital hope-and-changemonger until he actually won the election. But anyone who thinks or hopes that Obama, if he wins, will govern with similar boldness is taking quite a leap of faith.

Posted by: Jerry at August 5, 2008 12:02 PM

Good heavens. I hope Obama has no designs to lead with FDR-style boldness...

Posted by: Joel B. at August 5, 2008 5:18 PM

Being more of a Clintonite, I definitely prefer an absence of FDR's style of bold but often counterproductive experimentation. But if Obama is trying to present himself as a "Reagan of the left", he's making an appeal to people who think that's a good thing.

Posted by: Jerry at August 5, 2008 5:44 PM

The difference between Reagan and Obama is that when Reagan spoke, he knew what he was saying and how to present it to bring others to his point of view. When Obama speaks he reminds me of a used car salesman, who will say anything to make the sale and get in your pocket. There is no plan and the more he speaks the more that is evident.

Posted by: maddirishman at August 6, 2008 12:10 AM

"he knew what he was saying..."

Really? What DID he say about Iran-Contra?

Let me fix your post: "he knew what he was saying was bullsh**."

Posted by: Berto at August 6, 2008 8:53 AM

I went back and read the transcript of the RR/RFK debate. I also surfed a bit for commentary on it.

The cold transcript probably does not do RR justice; his acting skills made him a very effective communicator, while RFK grew into his public voice as his '68 campaign progressed. So, on TV or film, I'm sure RR seemed better than just the words indicate.

The questions were largely inane rantings of the hard left, but it did not seem to me that either RR or RFK did much one way or the other. Neither one impresssed very much.

The supposed quotes from RFK after the debate seem to come from either Newt "Oh, you have cancer? I want a divorce" Gingrich or the National Review -- neither a particularly objective source. Still, respected historians have noted that RFK was impressed by RR's debating skills.

In the end, the claims of RR dominance seem nothing more than the ususal GOP Reagan necrophilia.

Posted by: Magrooder at August 6, 2008 11:15 AM
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