Reagan Always Wins. Always.

By Jesse Taylor
Monday, November 10, 2008 18:45 EDT
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imageScott Rasmussen opines today that Barack Obama’s election reaffirms the central tenet of American political life, which is that Ronald Reagan is what people want, even before Ronald Reagan was around to let us know how much we wanted him.

Barack Obama won the White House by campaigning against an unpopular incumbent in a time of economic anxiety and lingering foreign policy concerns. He offered voters an upbeat message, praised the nation as a land of opportunity, promised tax cuts to just about everyone, and overcame doubts about his experience with a strong performance in the presidential debates.

Does this sound familiar? It should. Mr. Obama followed the approach that worked for Ronald Reagan. His victory confirmed that voters still embrace the guiding beliefs of the Reagan era.

There are levels of specificity and generality that one can use to make an argument. For instance, one could say that a chicken is like a pillow because both contain feathers, or one can say that a lemon is like a lime because they’re both citrus fruits whose juices are commonly used for a diversity of flavoring purposes in a large number of cuisines.

Scott Rasmussen just made your chicken into a pillow.

Barack Obama ran in large part against the unpopular incumbency of George W. Bush, yes. FDR ran against the unpopular incumbency of Herbert Hoover. I’m sure that James Buchanan came up once or twice when Abraham Lincoln was running in 1860, because Buchanan was just that shitty of a president. All across this great nation, non-incumbent candidates have run against the awful terms of terrible incumbents since we started electing people into office. (Well, technically, probably at least a year or two, given that there were no incumbents before we started voting people in.) I could argue that it’s an inherent feature of failed terms that challengers will stake their campaigns on the failure of the current officeholder, but then I forgot that whatever Reagan touches, Reagan possesses. For instance, your mom.

Likewise, running a positive, future-oriented campaign could theoretically be the original provenance of Ronald Reagan, but I have a hard time believing that in the prior two centuries of organized electioneering, the consensus campaign platform on which all other candidates ran was “Poo Now, Poo In The Future”. If a good performance in debates is likewise Reagan’s thug thizzle, we’re again left with an entire history of American politicking which, until 1980, resulted in mumblemouthed numbskulls complaining about how awful everything was.

The tax plan comparison is wrong on its face – Obama’s plan is almost the exact opposite of Reaganomics, and was repeatedly assailed as such, for good (both from a policy and a logical perspective) reason.

Our political discourse, basically as long as I’ve been alive, has been focused on Ronald Reagan. It’s the fourth-grade-history version of electoral politics: I know who George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were, so everyone else who was ever president must have been like one of the two of them. Well, except Nixon, who didn’t chop down the cherry tree – he just poisoned the roots and then used the resulting sickness from the tainted cherries to promote the apples he’d been growing this season as a healthier alternative. There’s one fundamental problem with this – even given the idol-worship of Ronald Reagan, the persistent belief that he is the alpha and omega of politics rest only on the most generalized view of Reagan’s principles.

A Rasmussen survey conducted Oct. 2 found that 59% agreed with the sentiment expressed by Reagan in his first inaugural address: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Just 28% disagreed with this sentiment. That survey also found that 44% of Obama voters agreed with Reagan’s assessment (40% did not). And McCain voters overwhelmingly supported the Gipper.

The real challenge for the new president will be attempting to govern with a message that resonates with most voters but divides his own party. Consider that 43% of voters view it as a positive to describe a candidate as being like Reagan, while just 26% consider it a negative. Being compared to Reagan rates higher among voters than being called “conservative,” “moderate,” “liberal” or “progressive.” Except among Democrats, that is. Fifty-one percent of Democrats view that Reagan comparison as a negative. There’s Mr. Obama’s dilemma in a nutshell.

His dilemma, to be clear, is that based on a single policy prescription which bears only the vaguest of similarities to Ronald Reagan’s plans from twenty-eight years ago, he will be hated by his own party because of an undying and creepy Republican mancrush/obsession. His dilemma, to be even clearer, is the stupidest fucking thing ever.

I’m not particularly interested in fighting over what the exact proper definition is for Ronald Reagan’s contribution to politics. What I am interested in, however, is making it completely clear that Ronald Reagan does not get to absorb every good thing that every presidential candidate ever does throughout perpetuity, nor is his corruption-riddled, hypocritical, propaganda-driven legacy the only benchmark for a successful period of governance. What we’re being expected to believe is that a black Democrat running openly on large levels of government investment in our economy, higher tax rates on high earners, a humble and diplomacy-focused foreign policy, alternative energy and expanded, government-driven access to healthcare – and repeated attacked as a socialist for doing so – is the exact same as a white Republican conservative who agreed with Grover Norquist’s remark that we must drown government in the bathtub.

A desire to see Ronald Reagan win every time does not mean that, in fact, Ronald Reagan actually won every time.

Jesse Taylor
Jesse Taylor
Jesse Taylor is an attorney and blogger from the great state of Ohio. He founded Pandagon in July, 2002, and has also served on the campaign and in the administration of former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland. He focuses on politics, race, law and pop culture, as well as the odd personal digression when the mood strikes.
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