I found it painful to read yesterday's diary regarding Barack Obama's comments about Ronald Reagan. Seeing such obviously sincere people completely misinterpret Sen. Obama's comments and misunderstand the rare opportunity that Obama offers to the progressive community prompted me to attempt an explanation of that opportunity. Many Kossacks appear to be missing the possibilities for the generational change to progressivism that Obama is trying to achieve. Only by winning the kind of mandate that Reagan won can major change be accomplished.
Far from agreeing with Reagan, Obama instead is attempting to reverse Reagan's legacy. He is doing so by following Reagan's successful battle plan for winning a complete generational realignment of politics in this nation. He cites Reagan not for his policies, but for the man's undeniable political prowess. Reagan achieved a generational shift toward conservatism, still the dominant philosophy in the nation. Simply put: Reagan won, and we lost (as did America).
Now, because of the incompetence, stupidity, and sickeningly vicious politics of George W. Bush, we have a chance to overthrow not just the Bush/Cheney junta, but to completely overturn Reagan's victory. Only Obama, because he attracts the crossover votes necessary to achieve a powerful mandate, can do it.
The chance for the kind of generational realignment achieved by Reagan comes rarely. Only a nearly complete disillusionment of the majority of the population offers that window of opportunity. FDR, as the Depression struck, seized the opportunity, as did LBJ after JFK's assassination, as did Reagan after more than a decade of strife left the majority of the population willing to try something new. Obama now sees a new chance for complete change.
These generational shifts go back a long way. Political conservatism dominated the 1920s. Harding and Coolidge allowed business to run amok in the 20s. Most Americans agreed with that approach. Throughout that decade the average American zestfully played the stock market as though it were a sure bet. Then, absent rational regulation, business collapsed and the roar of the 1920s morphed into a howl. Herbert Hoover, once a great humanitarian (Hoover had led the relief drive that saved many thousands of lives in Europe after the devastation of World War I), found himself trapped within his conservative philosophy. Government, he believed, must keep its hands off business. Hoover simply did not believe that he could marshall the power of the government that was necessary to aid devastated Americans, as he had previously aided Europeans.
Enter FDR, who understood how to reach voters during the desperate times. With the nation both economically and emotionally depressed, FDR ran his campaign with a strong message of optimism. "Happy Days are Here Again," he trumpeted. Of course he trounced Hoover, winning a strong mandate from voters.
In his first term, using the power of that mandate, FDR quickly pushed through his National Recovery Act and Social Security, (begun in 1935, although it did not pay benefits until later).
It was a generational realignment toward progressivism that lasted through Truman's administration.
After World War II and Truman's administration, which was perceived as a failure by the vast majority of the population, the country again turned mildly toward conservatism. Fortunately, smiling, optimistic Eisenhower was a far more progressive Republican than the rest of his party.
But Eisenhower's landslide victory was a realignment toward conservatism of a milder sort than we know today. The window of opportunity wasn't open in 1960--it took a candidate as inspirational (and optimistic) as JFK to barely eke out the narrowest victory in U.S. history.
After JFK's assassination, however, LBJ was able to win one of the greatest landslide victories in history, giving him a mandate to push through major progressive legislation, including Medicare. Johnson won not on optimism, but on an overwhelming sympathy vote from a traumatized nation, yet the mandate worked just as well to give LBJ the power he needed.
It could have been another realignment toward progressivism until LBJ ruined it with the Vietnam War.
The turmoil of the 60s turned half the country toward political conservatism. The nation divided along the lines we still see today. Because of Watergate, Nixon lost his chance for a generational realignment after his second, massive victory. Carter won with only a narrow victory that reflected the nation's continuing division, and was unable to achieve his goals as president. Then the struggling economy and the Iranian hostage crisis set the stage for another big shift.
Enter Ronald Reagan. He beat us. He also implemented shortsighted, egregiously destructive policies that were, intentionally, the polar opposite of progressivism.
How did Reagan beat us? By winning the kind of mandate that gives a president the power to achieve major change. Reagan capitalized on the sour mood of the country by running, as had FDR, on optimism: "It's morning in America." He was smooth and constantly smiling. He kept his fearmongering gentle: "There's a bear in the woods." He convinced large amounts of Democrats, the famed "Reagan Democrats" to vote for him.
As a result the Democratic congress, realizing that many of their constituents had voted for Reagan, feared that they would lose their jobs if they did not capitulate to Reagan's legislation. Because of that mandate, Reagan was able to achieve major change. That change was for the worse, but change it certainly was.
It was a generational realignment toward conservatism that has lasted for 28 years.
This is basic democracy, basic politics. If a candidate can win a strong mandate, as president he or she will have the power to implement major legislation. That mandate comes only by winning a significant amount of crossover votes from the opposing party.
Narrow victories do not give presidents that power. That's what Obama means when he says that a 50+1 victory "just won't do."
However, the opportunity to achieve such a mandate comes along only about once a generation, it seems. Now is such a time. A window has opened that can allow a complete shift in political philosophy. Americans are now so completely demoralized by Bush with his incompetence and aggressive attempts to keep us divided that they are searching for a new beginning.
That new mandate is what Obama is trying to achieve. Obama understands how Reagan did it. Reagan identified the yearnings of the majority of the population in 1980, and capitalized on them. Obama is doing the same in 2008, by capitalizing on the demoralized mood of the nation. He realizes that the majority of the population, Democratic, Republican and Independent, simply are heartily sick of the constant, vicious foodfight between polarized conservatives and progressives. He offers hope that things can change for the better, the nation can unite as it has not since before the 1960s.
That's why there are now "Obama Republicans" out there.
Only by appealing to Independents and to many demoralized Republicans can we achieve the kind of political power, that strong mandate, that can effect sweeping change. Bill Clinton never won that kind of power from the voters and thus was unable to shift the country toward progressivism. Instead, he found it necessary on too many occasions to capitulate to conservatism. DOMA, NAFTA, and welfare reform stand as testaments to the fact that Reagan's conservatism still dominated the nation, even while it was led by Clinton. That window wasn't open in 1992. It took a politician as talented as Bill Clinton to eke out a narrow victory.
Obama is running now, instead of four or eight years from now, because he knows that window of opportunity is open. Americans are so sick of these constant polarizing battles that they're nauseous. (Evidence: the positive, relieved reaction of most of the nation to Obama's 2004 convention speech.)
That's why only Obama has a real chance to achieve a generational realignment to progressivism. Sens. Clinton and Edwards, while both highly competent and strong candidates, forcefully promise to just keep slugging away, to continue the battles that have been raging since the 1960s. While that approach certainly attracts those of us who have engaged in those battles and who want to humiliate the opposition, it precludes the chance to win those crossover votes, that sweeping majority necessary to get major change accomplished. Hillary (as did Bill) and Edwards are still using tactics that appeal to only half the country, trying to expand the liberal side into the slightly bigger half. While emotionally satisfying and pleasant to Democrats, such tactics continue to alienate the half of the country that does not share our beliefs. Even if either were to win the election, as I believe either could, their approach stands less chance to win the powerful mandate they need actually to implement progressive change.
When Obama trumpets "Change we can believe in," he's talking about a complete shift in politics, a shift to progressivism that will last for decades. Because of his broad appeal, his ability to inspire as no one has since the Kennedys (he is older than both JFK and RFK when they died, incidentally), his basic civility, and his talent for bringing people together, he just might be able to win the kind of majority that will annihilate Reagan's achievement. Should he win the kind of mandate that Reagan won, by appealing to as large a swathe of the nation as Reagan did, he could gain the political power that is essential to implement major legislation. He could win the clout necessary actually to achieve universal healthcare, strong action on climate change, equal rights and much of the rest of the progressive agenda.
Here is our opportunity to win a real victory, one that will realign the nation to the progressive side for another generation at least, and finally begin the 21st century.
An Obama victory would be a complete, total repudiation of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and his pathetic son, because instead of merely defeating a conservative candidate, it would defeat conservatism.
It's the chance to finally, permanently, bury Ronald Reagan.