The recent flap over Barack Obama’s comments on Ronald Reagan speaks volumes about what distinguishes our three democratic presidential candidates. But what it says is not complementary to either Obama or Clinton. Instead, once again, it shows us that John Edwards is the real candidate all Democrats should support.
When Obama described Reagan’s Republican Party as the “party of ideas,” his intention was to use Reagan as a sort of yardstick for measuring whether or not a candidate has the mojo to rally a large majority of the nation’s political support. By invoking the concept of “the Reagan Democrat,” Obama intended to show that the Clintons did not measure up to the Reagan yardstick and to suggest, however, that he would.
Obama was thus casting a Clinton White House as one which would lack a governing majority, one that would only perpetuate an entrenched partisanship the nation would not willingly choose if offered an alternative. By contrast, an Obama White House, he implied, would, in a Reaganesque manner, make the Democratic Party once again a “Party of Ideas,” capable of maintaining a governing majority. This governing majority would attract “Obama Republicans” discontented with the Presidency of George W. Bush, who, however, would never vote for a Clinton.To read between the lines here, we have to look at the Reagan mythology a little more closely. In fact, there are two sides to this mythology: one built on false ideas, the other built on false emotions.
The Reagan Mythology and the Hard Reality
The false ideas were summed up in Reagan’s claim that “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”[i] The false emotion was summed up in Reagan’s campaign motto: “It’s morning again in America.” We know the Reagan ideas were false because we have it straight from the horse’s mouth. At the time, Reagan’s Budget Director, David Stockman, confessed: “None of us really understands what’s going on with all these numbers” and that supply-side economics “was always a Trojan horse to bring down the top [tax] rate.”[ii] The confession came too late, however, and the ruse worked. During his presidency Reagan cut the top income tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent. Getting rid of the government, it turned out, really meant just getting rid of the societal obligations owed by America’s most wealthy.
We all know the Reagan emotions were also false because we witnessed the havoc the Reagan presidency wrecked upon our nation. Author Thom Hartmann describes the impact of Reaganomics: “Our government was suddenly so badly awash in red ink that Reagan doubled the tax paid only by people earning less than $40,000/year (FICA), and then began borrowing from the huge surplus this new tax was accumulating in the Social Security Trust Fund. Even with that, Reagan had to borrow more money in his 8 years than the sum total of all presidents from George Washington to Jimmy Carter combined.” [iii] As a result, Hartmann concludes, we stopped investing in our infrastructure, our social safety net, and vital public services. Night fell on America.
Clinton Co-Opts the Center
Obama was right in his intimations about the limited reach of the ideas in the Clinton presidency, however, in that Bill Clinton won his bid for the presidency, not by railing against the economic injustice inflicted by Reagan, but often by co-opting Republican ideas. Thus, the centrist “New Democrat”, Bill Clinton famously declared straight out of the Reagan script: “The era of big government is over!” Then he instituted welfare cuts as welfare reform and recast laissez faire economics as the NAFTA free trade agreement. Corporations got bigger and more powerful and the poor got cast out of the government’s protection.
Thus, when Hillary Clinton twists Obama’s words around to suggest he is a fan of the economic abuses inflicted by Ronald Reagan, she is something like the pot calling the kettle black. Her political machine may be more in line with those abuses than Obama’s. If the Clinton machine is not quite as subservient to the interests of the super-rich as is the Reagan-Bush Republican Party, this merely proves Obama’s point. The Clinton machine did not win power by advancing a slate of ideas that was new, but rather one that was centrist, which is to say, compromised.
Obama Codes His Charisma
But neither does Obama get off well, even for all the validity of his point. He runs into trouble when he implies that his campaign will make the Democratic Party “the party of ideas” that can control a governing majority. Obama’s campaign simply is not a campaign of ideas, but a campaign of emotions. Even Obama’s logo evokes Reagan’s emotive “It’s morning again in America” slogan.
Obama wants to argue that he can rally a governing majority, as Reagan did, with his charm and charisma. He knows, however, that charm and charisma are not themselves sufficient criteria of merit to earn him the presidency. Accordingly, he substitutes for “charm and charisma” the code word, “ideas.”
Meanwhile, Clinton argues that she can rally a governing majority with centrist positions on the economy and foreign policy, even as she berates Obama for recognizing a strength in President Reagan, which she and her husband have conceded they cannot beat, and might therefore just as well join.
It’s just not a very pretty picture.
After the worst presidency in American history, one would think the Democratic Party could do better than a contest between one candidate who echoes the false emotions of Ronald Reagan and another who echoes the false ideas of Ronald Reagan.
We Can Do Better
Indeed, we can. There is, after all, the man the media has positively dedicated itself to ignoring. There is the one candidate who has honestly defined the interests of the great majority of Americans as being in direct conflict with those of the super-rich who have controlled our government through the auspices of the Republican Party. There is John Edwards.
Unlike Clinton and Obama, Edwards has not built his campaign of carefully balanced positions intended to appease the angry people without losing the sponsorship of corporate America.
Edwards has not, like Obama, built a campaign on the vague promise that he will be able to bring harmony between the lions and the lambs.
Edwards has not, like Clinton, built a campaign on a record of working effectively within the system, all the while skirting over the fact that during this time the system has gone from bad to worse, with little to be found anywhere within it that really serves the people.
Thus, what the media, the pundits, the voters, and most of all, the Edwards campaign, ought to be taking away from the flap over Obama’s comments on President Reagan is this:
After eight years of President Bush, what our nation really needs is a Democratic candidate who defines his candidacy as a direct challenge to the Republican Party, not as a strategic emulation of it.
Whether the emulation be emotional, as in the case of Obama, or substantive, as in the case of Clinton, it is in neither case what the American people need to restore the health of our democracy.
After eight years of President George Bush, who himself has tried so hard and failed so miserably to attract the political fairy dust that showered on the head of Ronald Reagan, we need a candidate who scorns such fairy dust and shouts hard truths instead.
What the Edwards Campaign Must Do
If anyone in the Edwards campaign is reading this, there is no time to lose to start exposing the Clinton and Obama campaigns as what they really are: attempts to falsely lure a discontented majority into voting, as Obama described Reagan’s success in the recent Florida debate, “against their self-interest.”
Only John Edwards has identified the conflict of interest between the super-rich who have corrupted our political process and the rest of us who suffer as a result. Edwards needs to make clear that this conflict of interest is what this election is really about and he needs to force Obama and Clinton into a position where they must openly declare on which side of that conflict it is that they stand.
If he succeeds in this maneuver, both Obama and Clinton will have to give up their claim to superior merit for neither “charm and charisma” nor “working within the system” are what is required once the battle lines are drawn.
Hank Edson is an author, activist and attorney based in San Francisco. His blog, “MP3—My Politics and Progressive Perspective,” can be found at: hankedson.squarespace.com.
[i] Ronald Reagan, “Inaugural Address, January 20, 1981,” [ii] “The Mendacity Index,” The Washington Monthly, September 2003, [iii] Thom Hartmann, “Rollback the Reagan Tax Cuts,” CommonDreams.org, August 6, 2007 .