Monday, August 25, 2008

FYI Obama: You’re Not Reagan

But you’ve got that Jimmy Carter thing down

Obama would like to think of himself as the liberal’s Ronald Reagan, and his campaign would love to invoke the image of the Reagan 1980 electoral landslide in the minds of voters. Obama frequently compares himself to Reagan in stump speeches, and why wouldn’t he? Reagan rode a wave of public discontent to a historical political landslide. He appealed to voters in both parties to engineer a nationwide political realignment that still shapes today’s political landscape. He was a celebrity idealist and sunny optimist whose only apparent weakness was his image as an inexperienced Hollywood lightweight. Obama kicked off the Reagan comparisons early in the primary season with this widely quoted interview with the Reno Gazette Journal Editorial Board on Jan 14, 2008:

I don’t want to present myself as some sort of singular figure. I think part of what’s different is the times. I do think that, for example, the 1980 election was different. I mean, I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America, in a way that, you know, 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.

Unfortunately, as has been a trend with Democratic candidates in the last two presidential elections, Obama underestimates the intelligence of the average voter. The majority of Americans are more sophisticated than the Democratic campaign gives them credit for. Issues and character inform the average voter and direct their ballot – not slick photo ops and snazzy logos. The Obama campaign and its supporters are tragically focused on the latter and fail to recognize that it was common sense policies and strength of character that fueled Reagan’s political appeal amongst both Republicans and Democrats. Some superficial similarities to Reagan aside, Obama has much more in common with Jimmy Carter on deeper levels of policy and political thinking. Whether it is taxes, foreign policy, or even racial politics, similarities to the Carter administration are strikingly evident.

First on taxes and the economy, hoping to deflect criticism of Obama’s policies, Chuck Raasch wrote last month in, “Democrats had ridiculed Reagan as an actor who had crazy economic theories.” It is a convenient narrative for Democrats to point out that Reagan was criticized for promoting “voodoo economics” much as Obama is being ridiculed for his taxation policies today. However, the ridicule is where the similarities to Reagan end, and in terms of taxes, Reagan and Obama could not be further apart in their respective philosophies.

Reagan was an adherent to supply side economics that promoted strategically adjusting capital gains and income taxes to encourage production and thus maximize tax revenue. In our modern tax climate, this means cutting taxes. Obama, on the other hand, advocates raising taxes to make things more “fair.” His campaign dubs its policy, “Tax Fairness for the Middle Class;” of course, Obama would be our grand arbiter of fairness. During the Democratic primaries in the ABC debate against Senator Clinton on April 16, 2008, Charles Gibson challenged Obama on his capital gains tax policy. Gibson pointed out that, historically, lowering the capitol gains tax actually increases government revenue so why would Obama favor increasing capitol gains tax? Obama responded, “I would look at raising taxes for purposes of fairness.”

Additionally, taking a page directly from the Carter playbook, Obama also advocates a revival of the disastrous Windfall Profits Tax. In stump speeches, Obama calls out Exxon-Mobile by name and sneers at their supposedly unseemly profits to finagle public support for this bill. Of course, Obama fails to mention that this tax decreased domestic production and increased dependency on foreign oil while failing dramatically to produce expected revenues. Reagan finally succeeded in repealing this tax in 1988.

Likewise, we see eerie echoes of Carter foreign policy in the Obama campaign. The most striking example is their mutual fumbling on questions of American policy towards Iran. During the Iran hostage crisis, Carter’s bungling resulted in hostages being held for 444 days and a botched rescue attempt which still holds propaganda value for terrorists to this day. Obama isn’t Commander in Chief yet, but his current stumbles on the campaign trail may foreshadow future debacles. During the YouTube/CNN Democratic primary debate, a participant asked the candidates the following question:

Would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during your first year of your administration in Washington, or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?

Without hesitation Senator Obama responded affirmatively, and for bonus points, threw in another Reagan reference:

I would, and the reason is this: that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of [the Bush] administration is ridiculous. Now, Ronald Reagan and Democratic presidents like JFK constantly spoke to the Soviet Union at a time when Ronald Reagan called them an evil empire… [Iran and Syria] have been acting irresponsibly up until this point, but if we tell them that we are not going to be a permanent occupying force, we are going to be in a position to say that they are going to have to carry some weight in terms of stabilizing the region.

No one is really sure how, exactly, Obama would convince Iran and Syria to “carry some weight in terms of stabilizing the region,” or how announcing a retreat of the US military would encourage regional strongmen to act more “responsibly”. The Obama campaign never really clarified the points, either. However, there is no doubt that Ahmadinejad, or any other Iranian leader, would milk a face-to-face meeting with a US president for all the propaganda value it was worth, and furthermore, meeting without preconditions would only reinforce present bad behavior by the regime.

In a rebuttal to the same question, Senator Clinton avoids falling into the trap:

Well, I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year; I will promise a very vigorous diplomatic effort because I think it is not that you promise a meeting at that high of a level before you know what the intentions are. I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes; I don’t want to make a situation even worse.

Before even securing his party’s nomination, Obama hands the Iranian regime a needless propaganda victory.

Like taxes and Middle East policy, even race politics came up back in 1980, and once again, Obama comes out looking a whole lot more like a Carter than a Reagan. Speaking on August 4, 1980 to the Neshoba County Fair outside Philadelphia, Mississipi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964, Reagan delivered what he intended to be a standard stump speech about restricting the size and influence of the federal government, but he unwisely used the term “states’ rights” to reference this concept. It is true that the term “states’ rights” has an ignoble history in the South. The States’ Rights Democratic Party ran Strom Thurmond for president in 1968 on an anti-segregation, pro-Jim Crow platform; however, in 1980 it was Jimmy Carter who first played the race card when he accused Reagan of racism. Speaking to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia on September 15, 1980, Carter told the audience:

You’ve seen in this campaign the stirrings of hate and the rebirth of code words like “states’ rights” in a speech in Mississippi in a campaign reference to the Ku Klux Klan relating to the South.

Reagan already had a long and well documented history of supporting states’ rights—in the small federal government meaning of the phrase—in a completely non-racial context as governor of California. Certainly, the use of the term was an insensitive gaffe on Reagan’s part made by a Californian out of his element in the deep South, but to construe his statement as a secret message to white supremacists, as Carter did, is race baiting hysteria.

Fast forward to 2008, McCain has not yet made any such slip, yet Obama pre-emptively accuses him of running a racist campaign. Speaking at a campaign stop in Missouri on July 30, 2008, Obama warned supporters to be on guard for racist attacks:

What they're going to try to do is make you scared of me. You know, he doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills."

After the Obama campaign initially denying that his comment was about race, David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist, conceded the obvious, that Obama’s remarks were about ethnicity, making the Obama campaign the first to play the race card. The race card may have helped nudge Obama ahead of Clinton in the primaries; however, Reagan weathered these types of attacks in 1980, and they ultimately reflected poorly on Carter. Likewise, this line of attack is unlikely to bear fruit for Obama in the 2008 general election.

Finally, Obama sought the ultimate Reagan-esque photo op and hoped to cement the image of himself as the liberal Reagan with a speech at Berlin’s Brandenburg gate in front of a crowd of cheering Germans. After expressions of concern from German chancellor Angela Merkel, Obama was forced to move his rally to the Berlin Victory Column. Obama did indeed get his photo taken in front of thousands of cheering Germans; however, in a speech smattered with no less than sixteen wall references, Obama never once achieved the clarity and impact of Reagan’s imperative, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Instead, Obama’s wall metaphors ran together into a bland string of platitudes because he utterly lacks the character, precision of thought, and sound principles that Reagan articulated in one simple sentence.

It was not Reagan’s clever use of a good line that riled the crowd; it was Reagan’s unambiguous rejection of tyranny against an undertow of moral equivalence that awed Germany and America. Sadly, from his questionable associations with Raila Odinga, to his vote on the Iraq war and opposition of the surge, right up to his timid and ambiguous statements on the Russian invasion of Georgia, Obama has shown Americans that he is all too willing to tolerate tyranny and embrace moral equivalence. Furthermore, Obama’s tax policies and even his use of the race card in the current election bear a much closer resemblance to those of Carter in 1980 than of Reagan. With Jimmy Carter speaking on Monday night of the 2008 Democratic National Convention, the electoral analogy comes around full circle – but clearly not in the way that favors Obama.

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