In case you missed it, Rick exhibited his usual ability to quickly analyze the bigger movements in politics. He’s working on a book on Reagan and that’s great news because the superlative Nixonland unpacked the politics of the 60s and connected it to today. I’m sure Perlstein will do the definitive book on the Reagan era that directly connects Nixon to Reagan to Rush Limbaugh to Tea Party.
I’ll quote here because it’s worth it.
“I think the reason Obama’s rhetoric and his whole strategic approach to his presidency fails is because going back six years or more, he fundamentally misunderstands the Republican Party. He doesn’t understand they behave, this kind of Leninist cell waiting in the mountains, waiting for the final apocalypse. He claims Reagan as a role model, a transformative presidency. Reagan every day said, “there’s a problem that screwed Americans: the Democratic party and the liberals.” By drawing that distinction he taught Americans to think that way. Barack Obama is constitutionally incapable of saying, “we have adversaries.” That every time a Democratic president comes in that they handle the government more effectively. Every time a Democratic president comes in, they create more jobs than the Republicans. But to say that would be constitutionally impossible for Obama because he needs to tell this story about reconciliation — there is no Red America, there is no Blue America.”
Perlstein uses the word “fails” to describe Obama’s “rhetoric and his whole strategic approach” and some might think that’s too strong but I agree with Rick. I’ve always wanted to see Obama go right at the GOP and channel FDR:
“Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred.”
But while Obama has had a moment here and there, he’s never been full throated about the opposition he faces. Even when they called him a liar at the State of the Union, he kept his equanimity. Kept his cool. His greatest failure will ultimately be that he did not utilize FDR-like motivational language in the run up to the 2010 elections. Very simply he needed to sound the alarm that “if you don’t go out to vote in 2010 your vote in 2008 will not matter one whit – you will not get the change you voted for 2 years ago.” Progress in the U.S. was taken hostage by that one election failure which allowed the GOP to take state houses and governor’s mansions and gerrymander themselves into 10 years of electoral advantages.
“The presidency is, in important respects, a rhetorical office it’s a bully pulpit as TR called it. And one of the things Ronald Reagan was very good at was losing well. When he lost lost a fight, let’s say when he had to raise taxes, he was very good at using that to drive home his fundamental message: “I have to raise taxes because those liberals made me do it. That’s just what liberals do.” Ultimately, everything, whether he won or lost, he made that a generational project of telling a story about how the world works that kept on hammering home what he wanted the presidents after him to do.
And lo and behold, that’s what the presidents after him did, even Clinton and Obama.”
Reagan made Democrats after him defensive and tentative. Clinton didn’t fight back, he triangulated and that got us deregulation and DOMA.
Reagan didn’t really have an opposition. Sure Democrats disagreed with his approach and philosophy, but they were happy to deal with him and thought that his election meant you had to do so. They thought they were just being civil. But Reagan, ever the conservative opportunist, took every opportunity to demonize them in public – and that, above all, is his legacy. He took the Nixonian politics of grievance and resentment and turned the volume up to 11 against liberals. And that became the raison d’etre of right wing talk radio which raised a generation of thoroughly indoctrinated ideologues that since 2010 populate the Congress and State Houses all over the country.
Obama may feel that he can’t attack, due to the angry black man thing, but his legacy depends on getting people to recognize the nature of the opposition he has faced and rejecting the GOP. Often in his first term, you had to wonder whether he himself was cognizant of the opposition to him. Now he seems to get it. But what will he do?
Go FDR Mr. President. Go Reagan. Attack on behalf of your party.