Out of Ronald Reagan’s shadow

Even though this is going to be a very close presidential election, maybe closer than in 2008, the Democratic convention of 2012 revealed a party that is stronger today than the dynamic gathering of hope and change that nominated Barack Obama four years ago. For the first time since Ronald Reagan won the White House in 1980, Democrats seem to be emerging from Reagan’s shadow. 

In American politics, a first election is not conclusive; what really matters is re-election. It’s easy to dismiss the work of a one-term president. A two-termer has a chance to certify a direction and to leave a mark. Getting re-elected can be a march to glory when conditions are fabulous, but when conditions are tough, it is a hard slog that reveals the character of a leader and of a party.

To really appreciate what happened at the 2012 Democratic convention, you have to understand what the politically skilled Ronald Reagan did to the Democrats. It wasn’t just that the Republicans dominated the political debate after Reagan’s 1980 victory and his smashing 1984 re-election. It’s that he got inside the heads of the Democrats and took away their belief in their own ideas. Who could beat his brilliant phrase stating his political philosophy at the outset of his presidency: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; it is the problem.” Reagan terrified Democrats to the point that they lost their normal fighting instincts and, at the same time, he imparted a jaunty, aggressive attitude to a Republican Party that had been demoralized by Watergate.

The midcentury Democratic Party of Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had plenty of “brass,” to borrow Bill Clinton’s felicitous phrase. But when educated reformers took the party out of the hands of the blue-collar machines in 1972, and then when Reagan won in 1980, the party’s brawling spirit went right out the window. Since then, it has sometimes seemed as if Democrats required focus groups just to talk to Americans.

If pollsters said voters wanted “nice” politicians, then Democrats tried to be nice. 

The Democrats’ weakness hurt more than themselves; it hurt the country. As the Republican Party has moved further right, its agenda has begun to challenge the pillars of the nation’s social safety net. The only remaining bars to a rightward lurch in national policy are either a renewed and invigorated moderate faction within the Republican Party or a vital, excited Democratic Party (or ideally, both). As of now (although hopefully not in the future), the moderate wing of the Republican Party is too weak to hold back the tide. Ironically, the Democrats’ weakness has reduced the leverage of the moderate Republicans. The result has become that the only strength in the room is on the right — so why not bend to it?

Bill Clinton is justly celebrated today for his political skills, but he did not solve the Democratic problem during his presidency. He brilliantly dodged Republican punches by triangulating and by fighting an ingenious defensive guerrilla battle against the ascendant right wing. But he was unable to reform health care. He could not get a stimulus package passed. His party got swamped in 1994. 
He did, though, show Democrats how to be aggressive without being vicious. He made clear it is possible to fight really hard without being disagreeable. We see this in competitive sports, and it can be true in politics as well. By example, Clinton showed how to educate and inform while engaging in political warfare, how to offer up an intellectual party that can actually talk to people. And, of course, he delivered an economic prosperity that could have been an argument for his party’s policies. 

In 2008, the Democrats were excited but divided, with the Clinton forces devastated by Obama’s victory over Hillary Clinton. Jewish and Latino voters supported Obama in huge numbers, but their first love in the primaries was for Hillary Clinton. Now that division is gone. This year, with Hillary Clinton in the administration, Bill is all in.

Obama has made some progress against economic and political headwinds. He got a stimulus package and he won historic health-care reform. But instead of building a fighting Democratic Party to watch his back, he spent valuable political capital trying fruitlessly to cure political partisanship itself. That cost him dearly in 2010, as energized Republicans flocked to the polls and demoralized Democrats stayed home. Back in January 2010, former President Clinton, addressing House Democrats, urged them not only to vote to pass health-care reform, but to fight for it, to explain its benefits to the voters. He quoted former Arkansas Sen. Dale Bumpers: “You’ve got to put the corn where the hogs can get to it.”

By 2011, Obama had come to understand that to win two terms, a president needs the full strength of his party. A president needs good politics to make good policy. He has to fight. If he fights, he will have a party to watch his back. And that is the only way that his health-care plan, which will mark his place in history, can avoid being cast into the dustbin.

This convention saw the rabbits turned into tigers. The convention hall was on fire. Perhaps it was the realization that unlike 2008, this is a real fight for real stakes, not a march to some post-partisan heaven. 

Democrats defended the health-care plan they had previously treated like an albatross. They bragged about killing Osama bin Laden. They had fun devising clever ways to attack their opponents. It was old-fashioned politics, of a sort Democrats have not practiced in a generation. When they blundered on the platform by omitting key material about Israel and Jerusalem, they ran a quick parliamentary maneuver to correct it, despite criticism from all sides and even satire from Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show.”

Of course, it’s still a process. It remains hard for Democrats to mention poor people, and it took Clinton to explain that Medicaid is not just for the poor, but also for the elderly and disabled. Democrats have been remarkably quiet about Republican moves to change rules at the polls that would suppress the vote in states they controlled after 2010. Perhaps they think voters haven’t yet noticed that minority and poor voters lean heavily to the Democrats. But this is a mistake; they should stand up for the rights of people whose votes they need, rather than be left wondering after the election why they don’t seem to turn out to vote.

Win or lose, Democrats should take heart from their convention and continue on the path to winning back their brass. They are going to need that fighting spirit for decades to come, because the gains of the New Deal and the Great Society are on the table. 

The country will be better off for having a stronger voice for the social safety net. Moderate Republicans will have a better chance to get back into the game if the parameters of the debate are pulled more to the center.      

That’s the real hope for common ground. 

Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.