OK DEMOCRATS, LET’S WIN ONE FOR THE GIPPER
The Democratic Party’s biggest problem is that it never learned to appreciate Ronald Reagan. That’s right, you heard me. That anti-intellectual, anti-environment, voodoo-economist, whose attitude to the needy could be summarized as “let ‘em eat cake,” was nevertheless precisely the kind of leader that a vibrant democracy should produce. He was honest. Visionary. Unafraid of change. Respectful of the people. And, above all, willing to express himself clearly and viscerally about the range of issues that most concerns us as a nation.
Of course I almost never agreed with a word he said. Yet that’s hardly the point. In a healthy democracy, we will have citizens with a range of values and political ideas, and we will have leaders, at different times, that represent a fair swath of that range. Ronald Reagan was elected with the help of a tail wind, when his Democratic predecessor proved incapable of governing. In this great democratic experiment, it is appropriate that we have leaders from the right … from time to time. And at other times, we deserve leaders from the left -- leaders who will clearly let us know that their progressive vision cuts across both their domestic and foreign policy agendas. Leaders whose hearts bleed for the poor, who care deeply about ensuring that the government protects us against “market failures” (and especially those involving the environment), and who are men and women of peace, rather than war.
By all rights, now should be one of the times that America tilts left and elects a true progressive, and not just another Blue Dog, centrist Democrat or “Compassionate Conservative” (i.e, phony) Republican. And now WOULD be one of those times, if the Democratic leadership had learned more to appreciate Ronald Reagan.
What am I talking about? Just think of the kind of campaign that a disciple of the Gipper would be running right now if he were in Barack Obama’s shoes. And to do that, think of the campaign that is now being run against Barack by John McCain.
First, he skewers Barack for his inexperience and then he finds a running mate, Sarah Palin, with an even thinner resume. His speechwriters task Palin with denigrating Barack’s work twenty years back as a “community organizer,” which according to McCain’s minions is a job that lacks “actual responsibilities.” Then, the McCain campaign holds up Palin as a great anti-earmark crusader who said “Thanks, but no thanks” to the Bridge to Nowhere – when the truth is that she has always been pro pork, had no qualms in seeking money for the Bridge to Nowhere, and felt no need to return the money for building the bridge once it arrived in Alaska.
The Bridge to Nowhere lie was outrageous, but it turned out that McCain and Company were just getting warmed up. He ran ads saying that Barack advocated sex-ed for kindergarteners, when in fact Barack merely supported sensible legislation calling for “age and developmentally appropriate education.” And the irony is that McCain ran this dishonest ad soon after Barack went out of his way to threaten to fire any staffer who tried to make political hay out of Bristol Palin’s teen pregnancy.
If that wasn’t enough, the McCain campaign accused Barack of making a sexist smear against Palin by using the phrase “putting lipstick on a pig,” when in fact he merely used a metaphor that McCain himself had used earlier in the campaign, and that quite clearly was not referring to Palin.
Finally, at the same time that McCain was employing these slimeball tactics, his campaign manager proudly proclaimed that this election is not about the issues. Well, there at least you have some honesty. The McCain campaign is saying virtually nothing about any issues that matter, and giving the American public virtually no clue as to how either McCain or Sarah Palin would govern if elected. It seems that, to McCain, the American public does not deserve a substantive debate about how best to change this nation’s off-course Government, but should instead be forced to gorge itself on character attacks and out-and-out lies.
So … the question to ask yourself is, WWRD – what would Reagan do if he were campaigning against John McCain?
I don’t think there’s any question that Reagan would hit back hard. He’d speak to the hearts of Americans about precisely how slimy a campaign John McCain is running. He’d use rhetoric, every bit as much as reasoned analysis. And he’d let us know that given all that is at stake in this election, and especially given the number of times that diversionary tactics have been successfully employed in past elections, the fundamental issue today is whether Americans are finally ready to stop encouraging dishonest and sleazy politicians from seeking the most powerful job in the world.
Reagan would surely praise McCain for his past service. But he would relentlessly mock McCain for thinking that such honorable service in the past somehow gives him the right to resort to dishonesty and diversion in the present – and, presumably, the future. The Gipper would especially mock McCain for those disgusting, self-righteous passages in McCain’s stump speeches where he touts himself as someone who learned at the Hanoi Hilton that he must give of himself 100 percent to the service of his country. Are you kidding me? How exactly does it serve one’s country for politicians to divert attention AWAY from the issues? Or to tell outright lies on the campaign trail? Or to insult the wonderful men and women who selflessly go into our nation’s poorest urban communities and attempt to develop the welfare and the pride of the residents there?
To listen to McCain boast about himself, you’d think he was another Samuel, whose mother Hannah was so appreciative of the ability to conceive a child that she gave away her infant child to Eli, the priest, so that he could spend his entire life in the service of God. Now I haven’t memorized the Bible, but I don’t recall reading that Samuel’s judgeship was focused around tactics of dishonesty and diversion. To me, when you center your candidacy on precisely those tactics, while at the same time proclaiming yourself the Platonic Form of the Patriot … you render yourself a suitable subject of relentless mockery. Or at least that’s what would happen if you were running against the a politician as skilled as the Gipper.
In some respects, Barack Obama is qualified to assume the mantle of the Democratic Reagan. Barack is a great communicator, at least when he gives a stump speech. He has a positive vision, one that is based on hope and not fear – just like the Gipper did. And there is an innocence and self-confidence in the way he expresses is political vision that deeply inspires people, in much the same way that Reagan inspired his own troops. To be sure, Barack’s views are in many ways the polar opposite of Reagan’s – I can hardly imagine Reagan saying that he wants to make working in the Civil Service “cool” – but Barack is Reaganesque in his willingness to let us all know that in the direction in which he would like to take us, he is no centrist. Call Barack a progressive, call him a liberal … use whatever word that you want. For all his realization that you can’t change this nation unless you first unify it, and you can’t unify it unless you treat all people with dignity and open your mind to a range of ideas, Barack clearly wants to move this nation leftward, and he’s not ashamed to let everyone know it. Reagan, who was equally clear about his rightward leanings, would have respected that about Barack.
Yes, folks, it was no accident that Barack had to put up with crap from his fellow Democrats for singing the Gipper’s praises during the primary campaign. I loved that about Barack. He understood much of what made Reagan great.
Much, but not all. And that is deeply unfortunate.
I have not been worried about what kind of president Barack would be. It might take him a little while, but I think he would turn into a superb leader who would transform American’s reputation throughout the world … and usher in many vital reforms domestically. But I have at different times been worried about Barack as a campaigner, and those worries have only been exacerbated in the past fortnight. Reagan would never have put up with the kind of sleazy campaign that McCain has run, but Barack appears to have an unlimited tolerance for being the target of sleazy attacks. It’s as if he never got the memo that negative, even blatantly dishonest, campaigning actually WORKS, at least if the response is not equally potent to Americans with average or below-average intelligence.
Ronald Reagan never had the benefit of watching Dukakis, Gore and Kerry go down to defeat at the hands of diversionary and/or dishonest tactics. Reagan didn’t need to watch it. He instinctively understood that if the American public is presented with two candidates, one of whom appears to be a fighter, and the other of whom appears to be a lover, they’ll elect the fighter every time.
Make no mistake -- in many ways, Barack Obama is ready to fight to take this country in a progressive direction, albeit one that involves making the necessary compromises to significantly unify our racial, geographical and classist divisions. We’ve seen Barack’s spirit on display over and over again in the past twenty months. But – and here’s the rub – can he fight DIRTY? Can he fight with mockery? With ad hominems? With the goal of ruthlessly destroying the reputation of his opponent – in this case, a man who once led a truly heroic life, but has turned into yet another example of a cancer upon our political system?
Ronald Reagan was never such a cancer. As politicians go, he was unusually honest with us. Quibble as you might with the scandals of his Administration, but all Administrations have scandals, and this much is undeniable: we knew EXACTLY what we were getting both of the times we elected Ronald Reagan President. But this year, if we were to elect John McCain and Sarah Palin, we’d have no clue what the hell was in store for us. In terms of foreign policy, they’ve given away nothing in terms of how quickly they’d pull the trigger on a military invasion, and even less of a sense of how they would hope to gain international respect (other than through bombing weaker countries). In terms of domestic policy, we know only that they hate pork -- Sarah Palin’s actual record notwithstanding – but haven’t any idea of how they could prevent a Democratic Congress from curtailing its consumption … let alone how they hoped to fix our health care system or address our other deepening domestic crises.
Today, September 13, 2008, this nation is at a crossroads. We have one ticket that is unwilling to level with us and every bit willing to lie its way into the White House. And we have another ticket that will not “lower itself” to fight back in the only way that a fight can be won – by taking off the gloves. So that leads us but one choice – to remember the words of Barack Obama. “We are the change that we have been looking for.” We – not Barack, and certainly not Joe “The Invisible Man” Biden – must seize the moment.
We-the-People must fight McCain and Palin. We must decry their lies, and demand a return to the issues. This message must be heard on radio stations, in comments to blogs, and even around the water cooler. The next time a Republican defends McCain and Palin as simply doing what politicians always do – divert and deceive – point out to that Republican just how full of crap he or she is.
I say this not because I’m a partisan but because I’m a lover of Jeffersonian Democracy. Back in the late 90s, I didn’t feel free to defend Clinton when he was dishonoring the Office of the Presidency. I attacked Clinton, and did so to my fellow Democrats. Republicans mustn’t feel free to defend McCain when he dishonors the concept of democracy. Let’s make sure they hear that we’re mad as hell as we’re not going to take it any more.
Democracy rests on a free, open marketplace of ideas – not a bunch of People Magazine profiles littered with lies and attacks against holy occupations (like “community organizer”). If we’re not willing to fight for that marketplace of ideas, our proud nation will become increasingly irrelevant overseas.
We owe it to Ronald Reagan – not to mention our planet – to do better. And, believe me, we have absolutely no time to lose.