I had a wonderful post on this subject, what got et when the site went down yesterday. It did go down, didn't it? It wasn't just me? So you'll just have to make do with this vastly inferior version.
Regardless of his intentions, Obama has been doing a pretty good job of splitting the left for some time now. Secular humanists, peace activists, Boomers, gays, all have had their turns feeling particularly spurned, while his version of triangulation has many even more nervous than the Clinton version made them. Many think he's got the perscription exactly backwards-Democrats don't suffer from being too much like the always-combatative Republicans, but from being too wimpy, too reluctant to stand up and fight for what they belive. And many think that now's not the time to reach out with a hand of friendship, just when they're sinking like a stone.
In this diary, I'm not going to try to solve all the differences just mentioned. Rather, I'm just going to look at one prominent example from the last week, and look at how it could have been handled differently, so that the divisions generated would have been among conservatives, not progressives. It's a very logical strategy to pursue on two counts: First, as a progressive, Obama should naturally want to unify progressives. Second, given that only some conservatives are genuinely interested in cooperation, while others are dedicated to oppostion, it makes perfect sense to reach out specifically to those who are reachable in a way that clarifies their differences from those who are not.
I am not suggesting a Machiavellian manoeuvre here. Quite the opposite. I am suggesting a clarifying manoeuvre to bring hidden differences out into the open, in order to preempt yet another round of Machiavellian maipulations to prevent the very sort of cooperation that Obama advocates for. What I'm going to do is recall Obama's remarks about Ronald Reagan, which have once again divided progresssives, and then I'm going to suggest two possible alternatives that could have found broad acceptance among progressives, while causing legitimate, and clarifying consternation among conservatives.
The first alternative questions the efficacy of Reagan's conservativism, and pushes the case that Eisenhower is a better, more substantial model to follow. Eisenhower isn't generally thought of as a conservative, but that's beause movement conservatives are actually reactionaries, who have kidnapped the "conservative" label. Eisenhower's model of gradual adaptation, not seeking to radically alter what has become part of the organic fabric of society (such as Social Security) is perfectly in line with the main thrust of Edmund Burke's thinking. Joseph de Maistre, not so much.
The second points out a number of liberal inconsistencies in Reagan's record, and casts doubt on whether he'd be accepted today as a true heir of himself. The example of Mike Huckabee is instructive in this regard, too.
"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."
There's really no need to restate what's wrong with this. The very fact that so many people have debated it is what's wrong with it. Indeed, the less you think is wrong with it, the greater the problem is-all that heat and no light? Very bad!
Particularly when Obama could have offered relatively respectful criticisms, grounded rock-solid in cold hard fact, that would have divided the other side, the wingnuts from those we can actually hope to dialogue with.
What Obama Could Have Said-Take 1: What About Ike?
Alternate Obama #1:
Many people 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. They think he put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. But as Reagan himself liked to say, "Facts are stubborn things," and the more you look at the sorts of things that people say, the clearer it becomes that things were a lot more complicated, and a lot more ambiguous.
For example, a lot of people think that people were responding to what they call "the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s," but the two oil shocks and the recessions that accompanied them, or the Iranian hostage crisis had nothing to do with the 1960s, and everything to do with problems that are with us to this very day-including 9/11, soaring gas prices and the growing threat of global warming. What's more it was very much a fluke of timing. If the election had been held in March of 1980, Carter would have been re-elected handily. So, the major turbulence of the era had nothing to do with the 1960ds, and Reagan's election had nothing to do with ending it. Indeed, economically, things got a lot worse before they got better, and even after they got better, the manufacturing jobs never really came back, and our middle class remains more fragile, less secure, and more divided than it was before Reagan took office.
Those problems are also with us still-as are another set of problems having to do with our budget. During his two terms, Ronald Reagan managed to more than double the federal deficit-he added more to the deficit in 8 short years than all the Presidents that came before him, from Washington to Carter. It's a very strange legacy for a man held up as a conservative icon. He may have touted the free market, and "trickle down economics," but the economic recover he presided over-which was weaker than the 1960s-was based entirely on Keynsian economics, deficit spending far beyond the scope of anything FDR imagined during the Great Depression.
Ronald Reagan had a winning smile, and an optimistic attitude, and Americans have always been an optimitstic people, so he resonated in a way. But if we want to look for a real model of Presidential leadership that Republicans can be proud of, General Dwight D. Eisenhower has a lot more substance, even if his style was more subdued. He worked well with the Democrats who controlled Congress through most of his term, established the Interstate Highway System, and didn't panic in the face of Sputnik, and the Soviets sudden, unexpected show of technological superiority. Instead he supported a broad-based response, with a good deal of civilian spending that laid the groundwork for a sustained response that not only put a man on the moon under JFK's inspiration, but produced a broad-based leadership in science that is with us to the present day. Eisenhower was remarkable for being a true conservative, and not altering our trajectory, not panicking and abandoning our basic values and self-confidence as a people, not responding in a show of force or display of vain bravado, but simply, humbly, modestly and effectively laying the groundwork for a renewal of our excellence. And that's the kind of true conservatism I can admire, respect, and even hope to emulate.
That's hardly the only way this could play out. It's just one possibility among many. But clearly there's a lot of room to play around here. Reagan's "conservatism" is just riddled with contradictions. Comparisons to Swiss cheese are inadequate and ill-advdised: unlike Swiss cheese, it has holes in its holes.
What Obama Could Have Said-Take 2: Are You SURE He's A Conservative?
Alternate Obama #2:
Many people 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. They think he put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it, and he's considered a conservative icon. But as Reagan himself liked to say, "Facts are stubborn things," and the more you look at the sorts of things that people say, the clearer it becomes that things were a lot more complicated, and a lot more ambiguous. For one thing, although Reagan certainly considered himself a conservative, he had a lot of liberal quirks, at least from today's perspective. He raised taxes to balance the budget as California governor, and raised taxes as President as well-inluding a massive payroll tax increase to stabilize and save Social Security. He opposed California's Briggs Initiative, which would have banned homosexuals from teaching in public schools, and coming from Hollywood, he had a number of gay friends. He rarely went to church, sometimes confused the Old and New Testaments, and relied on an astrologer, via his wife, for some of the running of the White House. And though he came into office with talk of fighting and winning a nuclear war, he came very close to an agreement with Michael Gorbachev to eliminate nuclear weapons entirely. Movement conservative leaders at the time were convinced he was being duped, or even going senile. For all these reasons and more, it's a pretty sure bet that if Reagan were to come back today, and try to run for higher office, he would be subject to attack ads lambasting him for betraying the legacy of Ronald Reagan.
What can I say? This has been an exercise in restraint. I'm about to burst under the pressure of holding myself back from snarking it up. Oh, the sacrifices I'm willing to make on behalf of trying to build unity!