Saturday, September 13, 2008

In Reagan's Shadow

Watching precipitous drop on Democratic popularity in the polls - from the anonymous Democrat to the presidential nominee - leaves me shaking my head at the sheer ineptitude of the people allegedly in charge of the operation. But even more it makes me want to take a long, hard look at why, in a political year that favors the Democrats more than any year since the FDR era, victory is being thrown away.

I'm with Pat Lang for the most part, though I'm much more critical of Obama than he is, probably because I have no investment in the candidate. I think he over-emphasizes racism as a point of resistance to Obama, but his evaluation of McCain and Palin are painfully accurate. They are, singly and together, disasters. Unlike other bloggers and a number of commenters on this blog, I think McCain is a revolting politician, a man of bad temper, questionable ethics, and reprehensible positions. Palin is worse. They are bad for the nation, not because of their marriages and family lives, knowledge of the internet, age or religion, but because their world views are fearful, ignorant and destructive. Their philosophy of government is authoritarian, no matter the window dressing of fighting corruption. I can admire their personal drive and dedication without thereby declaring their political objectives to be anything but inhumane. I can decry derogatory attacks on them on account of their gender, age, sociological backgrounds, etc., yet remain opposed to their political intensions. That the systems they work within force them into more moderate paths is the virtue of the institutions created to defend liberal democracy, not some insight into their alleged hidden moderate beliefs. They are talented politicians, after all, and know how to seem when in the public eye.

I can do this with a single phrase - They are Republicans and I oppose what the Republican Party, through its words and its deeds, stands for. That should be the first and last thing out of the mouth of every Democrat, yet is the formulation you just don't hear from Obama or the DNC. It's all about Hope™, Change™, and Bi/Postpartisan™ yadda-yadda. No one needs to explain to me or millions of other Democrats that the political opposition are, well, opponents; what requires explanation is how and why our own party has made itself into a different kind of opponent, one that is ineffectual against the Republicans but manages to insult and alienate its own constituencies with breathtaking precision.

I think there are two issues to examine, Obama's failure as a Democratic candidate and the aimlessness of the Democratic Party. The latter is the larger problem, without which the former would not exist. At root, neither are able to escape Reagan's shadow. This post I will focus on Obama, and save examining the party for the next round.

Obama has explicitly modeled himself on the popular backwards-looking image of Reagan - the positive, constructive, above-party guy who did spectacle well and inspired people to support him with a flash of his smile and the thrill of his oratory. He cites Reagan as an exemplar of the mode of politics he wants to engage in - telegenic, above the fray, sweeping political change and ignoring the critics. Even if he had not been trying so hard to dismiss Bill Clinton in order to minimize Hillary, Obama would still have been engaged in Reagan worship. Thus, the entire packaging of himself as a movement, swallowing hook line and sinker the hagiography of Saint Ronnie.

Charles Krauthammer is a hack and writes some of the most despicable commentary in American politics, but he wrote something truthful on Friday. He talked about the packaging of Obama (my emphasis throughout):

But Palin is not just a problem for Obama. She is also a symptom of what ails him. Before Palin, Obama was the ultimate celebrity candidate. For no presidential nominee in living memory had the gap between adulation and achievement been so great. Which is why McCain's Paris Hilton ads struck such a nerve. Obama's meteoric rise was based not on issues ... but on narrative, on eloquence, on charisma.

The unease at the Denver convention, the feeling of buyer's remorse, was the Democrats' realization that the arc of Obama's celebrity had peaked -- and had now entered a period of its steepest decline. That Palin could so instantly steal the celebrity spotlight is a reflection of that decline.

[Krauthammer discusses key speeches by Obama, then says] The problem is that Obama began believing in his own magical powers -- the chants, the swoons, the "we are the ones" self-infatuation. Like Ronald Reagan, he was leading a movement, but one entirely driven by personality. Reagan's revolution was rooted in concrete political ideas (supply-side economics, welfare-state deregulation, national strength) that transcended one man. For Obama's movement, the man is the transcendence.

Which gave the Obama campaign a cult-like tinge. With every primary and every repetition of the high-flown, self-referential rhetoric, the campaign's insubstantiality became clear. By the time it was repeated yet again on the night of the last primary (#3), the tropes were tired and flat. To top himself, Obama had to reach. Hence his triumphal declaration that history would note that night, his victory, his ascension, as "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."

Clang. But Obama heard only the cheers of the invited crowd. Not yet seeing how the pseudo-messianism was wearing thin, he did Berlin (#4) and finally jumped the shark. That grandiloquent proclamation of universalist puffery popped the bubble. The grandiosity had become bizarre.

Obama's Altitude Sickness

The Berlin speech was meant to invoke memories of JFK, but even more so of Reagan, to try to make a claim in images that could not be done in words - I'm just like the Great Communicator and you should respond to me in a comparable way.

Krauthammer points to the reason why Reagan, who was not nearly as popular as his idolators would have you believe, was able to so thoroughly dominate the political sphere. He had a foundation. He was a hard-line ideologue who had honed his political talents for decades and who was backed by what is still one of the best funded, most ideologically compact and politically determined groups in current Western politics - the Movement Conservatives. Regardless of what liberals may think of Reagan's political objectives (that they were crack-pot, inhumane, self-destructive, anti-American, etc.), Reagan offered something concrete to every constituency who supported him. Conservative judical appointments and breaking the barriers between church and state for the theocons, pumping up not just the military but the necessity of US hegemonic power for the neocons, deregulation and supply-side economics for the rest of the cons and crooks in the corporate suites. And he delivered. Even when he was forced to make strategic retreats, the rhetoric did not abate and the overall objectives were never abandoned. He was relentless in pusuit of his vision of how the world should be.

The backing from the Movement Conservatives is important. No matter how charismatic this actor, he was the head of a movement that preceded him and had an independent existence apart from him. It's still with us today. Reagan became the embodiment of this operation, not the operation itself. The Obama campaign's exuberant highs were based on nothing more than a cult of personality, which was at base little more than the frantic wish of his supporters to see themselves an ennobled by their support of him. The attacks aimed at his opponents - personal, vituperative, slanderous - probably tell us more about the insides of his supporters' heads than anything else, places awash in guilt over their very real racism, glee at being able to openly express their deep seated misogyny, accompanied by a big dollop of class resentment. Obama's own exhortation that his supporters should not think of themselves as anything but "Obamacans" is as clear a statement of the movement as anything else I've seen. The alpha and the omega of the campaign is the adulation of the man at the center.

It inverts the power structure that put Reagan where he was and put the nation on the road to disaster. An established, well-funded national operation that controlled major propaganda outlets, deliberately tapping into resentment and fear about changing socio-political institutions and structures, and has as its goal infesting the entire government from President to dog-catcher with its anti-democratic minions, selected a 100% loyal and massively effective partisan to be its face and drum up popular support. I'm sorry, but the Chicago Combine at its greatest expanse of powers, even if backed with every penny George Soros & Co. have ever earned, cannot compare.

When I look at the collapse of Obama, the Movie! (a fall well under way during the primaries), what I see is the level of support an ordinary Democrat might garner in a ho-hum year. The One, The Precious, is gone. Palin robbed him of the celebrity, the quality of being shiny and new, and what we see is Obama as an unadorned Democrat. His high points now are when the actual heroes of the party, Bill & Hillary, come out and offer reasons for us to vote as Democrats for the ticket.

The proper Democratic figure to compare to Reagan is Bill Clinton, particularly as Bill is actually more popular than Reagan with the general public. He did this by copying Reagan's substance, which was to identify constituencies and fight for them, and letting the style chips fall where they did. It helps that Big Dog is one of the most talented political speakers alive, able to convey complex political realities in direct, simple language, but oratory alone can be upstaged. He is beyond the shadow of Reagan because of his focus on what Reagan championed and how to push through liberal counter-measures in a way that doused the fires of resentment. His success was limited because he did not have the party and movement apparatus at his disposal that Reagan commanded and because the Right targeted him (quite correctly) as a very dangerous opponent.

Oddly enough, with the loss of celebrity, Obama ends up being the generic Democrat from central casting, promoted by a party actively jettisoning everything that makes it distinct. We have no signature issues for the campaign, only hopey-changey, we're not Bush (which worked so well for Kerry, as I remember...), don't vote for the guy who's stupid and out of touch (which worked so well for Carter, Mondale, Dukakis and Gore, as I remember...), we're all to blame for this Washington gridlock because Washington is the problem, etc., etc. There is nothing that looks, sounds or feels uniquely Democratic.

They are still running against the shadow of Reagan.



pm317 said...

So, Anglachel I agree with you that both sides suck. What would you like to happen? For me electing Obama would mean condoning everything they have done in the primary that was despicable and then propped up this candidate who is no good. They did it by going against the popular will of the people and that to me is a crime against democracy. Now they are trying to rewrite history by declaring how effective his campaign was in dismantling the Clinton machine! Well, his campaign was problematic in the primary, only all his inadequacies were hidden from plain view by the media and they are now coming to fore. His minions were a problem and they are now getting in the way of running an effective campaign against the Republicans. I think the bottom line for me is that I don't reward cheaters and pretenders even if they are on my side of the political spectrum. But most of all they betrayed the party faithfuls of a real Democrat and that to me is unforgivable.

Shainzona said...

What pm317 said.

Anglachel...what are we to do? I am not saying that I will do what you suggest (sorry!), but I respect your POV and you pose some very critical questions.

I have NEVER felt so lost in my life with regard to how to vote in November. The only thing that I do know is that I WILL NEVER vote for Barack Obama.

I am looking for a new home...and none seems to be on my horizon.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree with you on Obama. I do, however, differ with you on Reagan. Bill Clinton has nothing to do with Reagan. Clinton brought with him a belief in a Democratic party as evolved from FDR, JFK and continued forcefully by LBJ ad then By Humfrey and Mondale. Although, Bill Clinton realized that globalization is imminent and therefore initiated NAFTA, he still believed in Cesar Chavez unions.

He also brought with him his southern roots and his strong affinity with the African American Community.

When Obama is considered one has to remember that his racist attack on Bill and Hillary has also been an attack on black/white joint struggles for civil right going all the way to the civil right marches.

if Obama loses, the future of the party is unclear. The "Pelosi/Reid when do we sign Mr. President" gang is not going to relinquish power. Despite the fact that Hillary seems then to be the new leader, the gang still resents her.

If Obama wins, he'll be given the Bill treatment by Republicans. Also, his economic plan is basically garbage. It offers tons to many with very little money available. I, therefore, see the continuing of the Bush years with less tax cuts for the rich. Afghanistan will replace Iraq, the infrastructure will be last. There will a lot of talk about green energy, but very little will be done.

Christopher Corbell said...

Racism has -not- hurt Obama. The people who would not vote for him due to race are a small minority and they were already factored into the electoral equation. A much larger number of voters are supporting Obama -because- of his race, as "symbolic" progress even though they have no idea what his policies will be. So the race issue is a wash at best, and an advantage for him on the shallow left.

On the other hand, Obama's left-right doublespeak combo is catching up to him. Those in the center-right see Obama as far left, while those on the left (or just highly partisan Democrats) are troubled by his "post-partisan" BS. They're both right; Obama's program -is- much farther left than Clinton, a return to a bloated federal bureaucracy for all of his career-pol pals. However he also is an egomaniac chiefly concerned with his own power in a charismatic mode a la Reagan, which should concern anyone (even old-school big-government Democrats) who prefers humbler public servants.

However one thing that Reagan and Clinton shared that Obama lacks: they both had an ideological vision for their party that included the average, pragmatic American. Reagan invented the modern Republican coalition; Clinton invented the third-way politics that was in practice the kind of reaching-across-the-aisle that Obama's preached but never practiced. All Obama has is a big "bamboozle", to use his word.

Unknown said...

I think McCain's choice of Palin will backfire. This is the first election I've watched where a VP pick may determine the election. It was an incredibly risky move that, so far, has played well for him. But ultimately it may only deliver the evangelical base. Just a hunch based on my own feelings and how his pick affects my vote.

Great post. Thanks.

glennmcgahee said...

Its too funny that Obama has been trying to emulate Reagan throughout this campaign. Even he has bought into themyth that was Reagan. Reagan was nothing, but the Republicans immediately began to rename everything that didn't move after him as a wayto prop up that legacy. Its fake and phoney. We all knew better as Democrats, but Obama actually thought that he could bring allthose Republicans over to him by invoking Reagan's name. Remember Democrat for a day? Well, Obama, thats all you got. They signed on and maybe voted for you in caucus' and primaries, but it was just for that day. The real Democrats, your constituency, were not very happy about that fact. You wouldn't have heard Hillary saying those things. She would be fighting for Democratic values and revealing the true legacy of Reagan.

orionATL said...

anglachel -

one could call what ails the democratic party "aimlessness", but i don't.

from my standpoint,

the democratic party is a head disconnected from its body.

that "head" has a political ideology and strategy of ruling that has as its first principal meeting the neeeds of large corporations, insuring corporate well-being, and deferring to and depending upon corporate political monies to retain power.

the democratic "body" however supports the classic ideology of the democratic party - use the gov't to the greater benefit of all, respect, protect, and advance the economic and political interests of the "little guy", use gov't to be charitable and helpful to those less fortunate than ourselves.

the fact that the head and the body are seperated produces legislative "peculiarities" like this:

(from the nytimes)

"Voters give Senator Barack Obama enthusiastic applause whenever he promises to take on the credit card companies — and he makes that promise often. Yet, his Democratic colleagues are stalling a crucial House vote on a bill that could give Americans essential protections..."

"...This reform poses a particular challenge to Mr. Biden, who hails from Delaware, a state where financial services are big business. The banking industry has contributed handsomely to his campaigns and once employed his son. The senator voted for the disastrous bankruptcy overhaul three years ago..."

nytimes opinion.

nor is this particular failure on the part of democratic leaders a singularity.

consider the entirely unnecessary and unwarrranted telecomm immunity bill shepherded thru the congress by reps pelosi and hoyer, and sen harry reid.

or the failure to demand higher fuel-efficiency for american vehicles (rep john conyers).

or the failure to enact more strignent air and water pollution guidelines or demand more stringent testing of chemicals

or the failure to provide inexpensive education for every american competent to take advantage of it.

or the failure to provide health care to tens of millions.

none of these are the fault soley of the demcraric party's leadership, but in none of these cases has that leadership acted persistently over time as an effective and cohensive unit to solve these large-scale social problems.

so i sould argue it is not "aimlessnesses" that affects the dem party, but the fact that its leadershhip, considered a whole, does not believe in or act upon the beliefs of ordinary democrats.

thus, when they speak publicly or initiate legislation, they do not do so passion and conviction; they turn democratic beliefs into mouthed platitudes in an insincere effort to sooth their democratic supporters.

that senator obama was chosen over senator clintont is in my view just another symptom of this rot at the heart of the democrtic party.

in fact, i harbor the suspicion that the democrtic party leadership supported obama because it knew very well that senator clinton would be much more forceful and demanding president than would an inexperinced and weak president obama.

salmonrising said...

Thanks for providing a fascinating look at some deeper background issues in the current election cycle. (I haven't clicked on your link, but I assume you have added substantively to the views expressed there.) The cultish aspect of the Obama campaign and the hollowness at the core of the democrat party have been apparent for some time, but I had not pieced together the connection between the seems so obvious now that you have pointed it out.

In hindsight, both Gore and Kerry were candidates and campaigns without a center. There have been periodic spasms in the blogosphere questioning what DEMs stand for and contests to write a summary of DEM principles. Maybe it was at DK or FDL? My recollection is that the bloggers were as inarticulate as the national party on this score.

So, is it chicken or egg? Will it take an gifted candidate arising de novo with a core set of populist goals to drag the party along with her to campaign and win with a genuine reform agenda? Or will some faction of the current interest groups known as the democrat party develop a reform agenda for candidates to run on? Or are there other mechanisms? I ask because I have no earthly idea since I have no grounding in either politics or history. Right now it seems that the core constituency of the democratic party consists of the top 10% or so of income earners dominated by those in finance, media, and information technology. Theirs is the real agenda of the Democrat party...the rest is simply window dressing to attract the necessary votes to consolidate power.

Looking forward to the second part of your analysis on this topic.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that you should downplay the racism. I lived in Salt Lake City for 18 years, visiting different parts of the intermountain west. Granted that I have not lived there since 1994, but I can attest to the blatant and dormant racism that is part of everyday life there.
I live now in the NY metropolitan area, a bastion of liberalism. But don't fool yourselves into thinking that racism is not endemic to these parts.

Anglachel said...


I neither wish to downplay racism, nor build it up as something larger than it is. It needs to be seen clearly and political strategies established in light of those observations.

Your comment that racism is endemic to the intermountain West (a claim I find plausible as I have traveled extensively there and have a number of close friends who live there) makes me ask the question why the Obama campaign is so confident that it will win big in that region? If the racism is widespread and you do not have countervailing populations, how can he win?

For example, you can make a plausible argument that virulent racism in the South can be defeated in some states because of a high encough proportion of minority and non-racist white voters, or because the candidate who appeals to racists over-steps (as Allen did) and engages in racism that is too egregious to be overlooked by voters who would otherwise excuse racist behavior.

I lived for years in NYC. I was at first shocked by the blatent nature of racism there, but then accepted it as part of the environment. It was like a chemical in the mix, potentially explosive or toxic, but usually contained.

My argument is this: if racism is so widespread and endemic, then why is a central argument of the Obama campaign that he will appeal to everyone? If they are so confident of a victory, doesn't that mean racism isn't this enormous force loose in the nation?

In short, they don't believe it, either, and it's a campaign tactic, one that is wearing VERY thin with Democrats who are NOT racists and who object to his candidacy on substantive grounds.


Professor Zero said...

Astute post.

I am nostalgic for the Democratic Party, as in the FDR one, and I'd have an Obama bumper sticker if I could get one that said "Barack Obama - Democrat."

And while I understand the Obama strategy - he's trying to rise above the dirty word Democrat became after so much mischaracterization by the Right - I agree that it is thin.

I'm voting for him but I know he's a centrist, not someone who really speaks for me or will really be on the side of the poor. *Those* were my main problems with both Clintons as well.

But it is amazing how, nowadays, anything not rabidly right wing is considered "fringe" and "crazy."