Saturday, August 22, 2009


“I don't want to present myself as some sort of singular figure. I think part of what's different are the times. I do think that for example the 1980 was different. I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.”

The above is a direct quote from Barack Obama back before he was the Democratic nominee for President. Hillary jumped all over those words, claiming in essence that they sold out Democratic Party values. But a number of us, myself included, passionately defended Barack for courageously giving credit where credit is due. After all, even the most staunch Reagan-hater recognized that the Gipper was light years better than W and many of the other Republican leaders of today, and besides, you’d have to be blind not to see in Reagan a major force behind the end of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain.

Can I point to a bunch of things Reagan did that made my skin crawl as a liberal Democrat? Sure. But he never said he would implement a progressive vision. He was always up front about who he was and what he stood for, and yet America elected him by clear margins. Even in 1980, when he ran against an incumbent President, he won big, just as Barack won big this past November. And when this recent election was over and Barack was celebrated in an Inauguration for the ages, I envisioned him serving the same role for the Democrats that the Gipper served for the Republicans.

Barack was right – Reagan merely “tapped into what people were already feeling”: frustration with a government that allowed a group of Iranian thugs to push us around while, at the same time, feeling the need to rein in private enterprises like an incompetent nanny. (If you’re too young to remember Jimmy “The Nanny” Carter as President, find that famous “Malaise Speech” and listen to it; his oratory was as depressing as a Bergman movie.) So what did Reagan do when elected? He filled the vacuum with standard Republican solutions -- less regulation, lower taxes, a muscular foreign policy, and appeals to simple patriotism. We can debate whether these were mostly positive or negative steps, but there should be no debate that the great republican experiment known as America (that’s “republican” with a small “r”) can only thrive when it permits the body politic to try out a variety of ideas. In other words, our democracy needs the elbow room to permit visions like Reagan’s to be implemented from time to time, just as it needs the room to permit progressive visions to be implemented from time to time. Hopefully, we can learn from these episodes and incorporate the lessons into our national consciousness. That’s how a republic is supposed to evolve. That’s how to keep America from becoming just another empire that got fat and happy and then, unwilling to grow, began inexorably to decline.

Forgive me, but when I read Barack’s praise about Reagan, I assumed – or should I say, I “dreamt” -- that he understood the above. I dreamt that he, too, looked forward to the day when we would elect a Democrat who “tapped into what people were already feeling” and who wasn’t afraid to confront the people’s frustrations. I dreamt that Barack realized that with W as President, the country was tired of the same old NON compassionate-conservativism and was ready to embrace a progressive vision, a vision that included, for example, universal healthcare. In short, I dreamt that Barack saw in Reagan a kind of role model for himself: a man who clearly stood well within the mainstream of his Party’s thinking, who was elected at a time when the country was unusually ripe to see that ideology implemented, and who had the charisma, communication skills, and cojones needed to persuade the country that it was high time to let her rip! The only difference would be that, in my dream, Barack would do for the progressive vision what the Gipper did for its conservative analogue.

As I type the above, I am reminded that dreams are typically not 100% rational. I have spoken as if Barack campaigned as a progressive, or at least viewed himself in that way. The truth is, though, that candidate-Barack often positioned himself as a post-partisan figure -- one who is less governed by ideology than by competence, to use the words of Michael Dukakis, and who is especially skilled at listening openly to all sides of an issue and identifying a synthesis that implements the best facets of each position. This is why Barack would appear to make such an ideal diplomat; this is why, if any American President can make inroads into forging a Middle East Peace, that President’s name is Barack Obama.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here, because now is not the time when Barack is called upon to broker a Middle East Peace plan. Now is the time for Barack to help reform our over-stuffed and under-served health care system. For this task, we don’t so much need a diplomatic White House as one with a vision for which it’s willing to fight, and some political capital that it’s willing to spend. As they say in my profession, now is no time for Barack to act as a mediator; rather, it is his duty to act as an advocate. And yes, it was my hope that the reforms he would passionately advocate would be commonly known as “progressive.”

As I look back to the days of the Reagan White House, I can only imagine what they’d have been like had the Gipper enjoyed huge Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, including a filibuster-free Senate. What if, back then, we all agreed that a major sector of the economy was dangerously broken, and candidate Reagan had promised a solidly-conservative fix? And what if, after the election, the paltry group of Democrats who were left on that Hill had acted in the most obstreperous way imaginable, refusing even to compromise with the proposal that Reagan had sold to the American public when he was a candidate and continued to advocate as President? Do you think for a second that the Gipper would have backed down to those Democrats? Wouldn’t he have said, in essence, “I promised the American public a certain type of reform, and I’m first going to get on TV and state, once again, exactly what I promised and why I promised it. Then, I’m either going to deliver that reform … or the head of every Republican legislator who’s willing to sell out his President, his Party, and quite possibly his principles. As for the Democrats, they’re just being oppositional because they want their power back. So screw ‘em. They’re irrelevant because they’ve made themselves so. This is about the Republican Party – are we a Party, or are we a joke? What do you say we find out?”

That’s surely what the Gipper would say. I’m still waiting to hear from Barack. As of now, his lieutenants are saying one thing one day and something very different the next, and as a result, I haven’t a clue what Barack really thinks about health care. At least I always knew where Reagan stood.

There’s still time, Barack. There’s still time. But when you come back from hitting golf balls with Tiger on vacation, we need you to get busy.

No comments: