Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Gipper lives

BARACK Obama, who is level-pegging with Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, committed what looked like a serious gaffe last week. According to the classic definition, coined by liberal columnist Michael Kinsley, a political gaffe consists of a politician telling the truth inadvertently. And in an interview with a US newspaper, Obama praised Ronald Reagan. In the eyes of left-wing activists, that was rather like a candidate for the papacy putting in a good word for Beelzebub. Worse, Obama praised Reagan not in saccharine generalities that might have been forgiven ("a great American", "he expressed America's can-do spirit", and so on) but more pointedly and heretically as an agent of political change.

Here are his words: "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, you know, with all the excesses of the 1960s and '70s and, you know, government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think ... he 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."

Obama might have cited different Reaganite achievements that seem more important historically: for instance, his masterly waging of strategic competition against the Soviets that, in Margaret Thatcher's words, "won the Cold War without firing a shot". But such an argument would not have made all the useful political points implicit in his quote, notably that (a) Reagan changed America for the better; (b) his changes limited government and liberated private entrepreneurship; (c) these changes were necessary and reflected what Americans wanted; and, above all, (d) president Clinton really hadn't altered the trajectory that Reagan launched any more than Nixon had altered the liberal trajectory of FDR and LBJ. This list amounts to a comprehensive dissing of Democratic pieties and recent Democratic history. Obama's rivals were virtually compelled to attack it.

After a day or two it began to look as if Obama's praise for Reagan was not a gaffe at all. After all, Obama had felt no need to withdraw or even amend that praise, usually the final stage of the gaffe trajectory. On the contrary, it had wrong-footed his opponents, strengthened his appeal to Republicans and independents for November, widened his ideological options and confirmed his public image of cool graciousness. Not a bad return on saying what almost everyone, including his rivals John Edwards and Hillary (and Bill) Clinton, knows to be a fact.

That fact, however, reflects a dramatic turnaround in Reagan's fortunes. According to Gallup, Reagan's average approval rating during his time in office was a distinctly average 53 per cent. Since 1989, however, it has gradually risen to 73 per cent (a rating exceeded only by the glamorous but mediocre John F. Kennedy). Asked to rate presidents in terms of greatness, Americans in recent years have put him just under (and sometimes above) Abraham Lincoln.

Such a sharp change reflects several different factors. Retirement and death usually improve a politician's reputation. Old opponents overcome the bitterness of past conflicts; newcomers hardly remember what they were about. Anyone who today cites the striking air controllers almost certainly does so to praise Reagan's firmness. Subsequent events in the world can show someone's real mettle. Dunkirk destroyed the reputation of Chamberlain and Baldwin. The collapse of Soviet communism underlined Reagan's shrewdness and strength, and the worth of his principled anti-communism.

Reagan's domestic legacy has been equally impressive: a political structure constraining government in which his Democrat opponents have been more or less compelled to follow his trajectory. The most favourable interpretation of Bill Clinton's record, for instance, is that he implemented the more progressive parts of the Republican agenda such as welfare reform and the expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Both Clintons have thus had to adopt a nervously favourable attitude to the Gipper. Anything less would be ingratitude.

Historical scholarship has limped along behind these developments. But recent studies of the Reagan presidency, including some by political liberals such as Richard Reeves, have conceded that Reagan was a successful and historically important president. As Reeves argued, it is simply implausible to imagine that the "amiable dunce" of earlier liberal imaginings could have racked up such impressive achievements.

More important, however, has been one trend utterly impossible to predict. Reagan refurbished his own reputation while suffering from, first, Alzheimer's and, second, death. Books based on his radio scripts, newspaper columns, letters and diaries - all published just before or after his death - have shown him to be a much more diligent, thoughtful, well-informed and able man than his earlier reputation suggested. We now have a clear impression of an inner man who matches the external achievements. His public image has risen accordingly.

Obama is the first politician in this campaign, and perhaps the first Democrat ever, to exploit Reagan's new standing effectively. Hillary Clinton, Edwards and even the adept Bill Clinton are still flummoxed over how to get around the obstacle of Reagan in their path to power. But the Republican candidates are hardly less flummoxed by a GOP primary process that is now in effect a contest to find another Reagan.

Their first problem with Reagan is that he is the great man beside whom they are all bound to look like pygmies until they gain power and, thus, the chance to match his achievements (and doubtful even then). Their attempt to resemble Reagan inevitably diminishes them. Their other problem is they cannot sensibly answer the question: what would Reagan do? They tend to fall back on the reply: what he did last time. But as various conservative intellectuals - David Frum in the new book Comeback, Victor Hanson Davis on National Review Online - have pointed out, that answer is misleading because Reagan was dealing with very different problems from those of 2008. We have to ask instead: what made him a different kind of political leader? William Kristol in The Weekly Standard argues rightly that Reagan differed from most leaders and all the present candidates in being the leader of both a political party and an ideological conservative movement.

The same is true, incidentally, of Thatcher and John Howard. It explains why they could act more boldly than most (directionless) leaders but also why their supporters trusted them when they compromised. None of the three, however, was an original political thinker or a rigid ideologist imposing a prefabricated project on their nations: that is a typical left-wing misinterpretation of Thatcherism in particular. They were courageous and principled leaders applying practical conservative solutions to the problems of hyper-inflation, economic over-regulation and the Soviet advance that had been thrown at them by history. As it happened, their solutions turned out to be the right ones. But they were elicited by the problems as much as springing from conservatism.

History is throwing different problems at America today: the sub-prime mortgage crisis, Iran and Afghanistan among them. Republicans should examine these problems rather than Reagan's record. If they are both practical and conservative, they will tend to come up with reasonable conservative solutions. Obama has already figured this out. He merely thinks the best solutions to these new problems are likely to be liberal ones, and so the next agent of change a liberal version of Reagan.


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