The Democrats-Praise-Reagan Game
As a journalist who investigated Reagan-era scandals – from secret arms deals with Iran and Iraq to drug traffickers protected by the covert wars in Nicaragua and Afghanistan – I always recoiled when Democrats prostrated themselves in praise of Ronald Reagan.
Beyond the pandering component, there was the annoying assumption that the rest of us were too stupid to see what they were up to, as they tried to sound “bipartisan” or buy a measure of protection from Republican attacks.
Now, a recurrence of this “Democrats-praise-Reagan" game has intruded on the 2008 presidential campaign as both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have had to explain seemingly favorable comments about President Reagan.
In an editorial board interview before the Nevada caucuses, Obama cited Reagan as a leader who spoke to public anger about the lack of accountability in the 1960s and 1970s and thus “changed the trajectory of America.” That prompted an accusation from Clinton at the Jan. 21 debate that Obama was “admiring Ronald Reagan.”
Obama denied Clinton’s characterization, claiming he was just acknowledging Reagan’s historical significance. He also noted that Clinton had “provided much more fulsome praise” of Reagan in Tom Brokaw’s new book, Boom!, which quotes Clinton as praising Reagan’s flexibility.
“He could call the Soviet Union the Evil Empire and then negotiate arms-control agreements,” she said. “He played the balance and the music beautifully.”
Clinton also found herself explaining remarks she made in gaining the endorsement of the Salmon Press weeklies in New Hampshire. The endorsement editorial said Clinton’s list of favorite presidents included “Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Truman, George H.W. Bush and Reagan” – plus her husband, Bill Clinton.
When journalists and the Obama campaign noted the inclusion of Reagan and the senior Bush on Clinton’s list, the Clinton campaign released a statement quoting the Salmon Press co-owner saying “the question posed was originally what portraits would you hang in the White House if you were President and as the dialogue progressed, who are the presidents you admire most? … She did not say Reagan was her favorite President.”
Whatever the nuances, this pattern of fawning over Reagan has long been common among national Democrats, a way of triangulating against the anti-Reagan Democratic “base” and getting in line with Washington’s insiders who treat Reagan’s greatness as a matter of conventional wisdom.
But why do national Democrats do this? In my view, this Reagan pandering can be traced to two basic factors:
First, since the late 1970s when the Right began its huge investment in media outlets, attack groups and other year-round infrastructure, the liberal/progressive side of American politics failed to make any serious effort at countering it. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Left’s Media Miscalculation.”]
The rightward tilt of the media/infrastructure asymmetry, especially in talk radio and on cable news, meant that over the past quarter century, large swaths of the U.S. countryside heard denunciations of “lib-ruls” as un-American and even treasonous, with little explanation or defense of liberal positions.
As a secondary result, Democratic politicians sought some protection from the Right’s fury by trimming their ideological sails. Similarly, many mainstream journalists avoided critical stories about Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush out of fear of the career damage that the Right could inflict.
In the late 1980s, when I was with the Associated Press and Newsweek, I worked on important scandals, such as the Iran-Contra Affair and contra-cocaine trafficking, that implicated the Reagan and Bush administrations in serious crimes. But many senior editors, including some of my superiors, shied from these stories.
The young neoconservatives, rising to power under Reagan and Bush, understood the importance of controlling the flow of information that reached the American people, what the neocons called “perception management.” If you refused to back off stories that caused them trouble, the neocons would threaten to “controversialize” you by having the powerful right-wing apparatus single you out and destroy your reputation.
This difficulty of investigating Reagan and Bush was compounded by Democrats in Congress who feared political payback from the Republicans. Politically, it was safer to accept implausible explanations and absurd alibis. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History and Secrecy & Privilege.]
The final opportunity for the Democrats to turn this pattern around came in late 1992 and early 1993 after Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush. The Democrats finally controlled the Executive Branch as well as the Congress – and all that was needed was some support of ongoing investigations into Reagan-Bush wrongdoing.
But instead of cleaning house, President Clinton took the advice of Washington insiders that it was best to sweep these unpleasant matters under the rug. That way, the thinking went, the new Clinton administration wouldn't be distracted from its domestic priorities, like health care and economic policy.
The deal turned out badly for Clinton. The Republicans still torpedoed his domestic agenda and the Right’s infrastructure was freed up from having to defend Reagan and Bush, so it could go on the offensive against Clinton and his alleged scandals, from his womanizing to the Whitewater real estate deal.
As Clinton’s presidency was relentlessly torn down, Reagan’s legacy was systematically built up. After the Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, they pressed a campaign to name Washington National Airport after Reagan along with at least one government building in every state.
Amid this canonization of Ronald Reagan, no serious historical review was permitted into what actually happened during his eight-year presidency and the four years under George H.W. Bush.
After a while, few people were left in Washington who dared contest the greatness of Ronald Reagan. As that conventional wisdom solidified, national Democrats found it easier to identify some part of Reagan’s agenda that they could embrace than to take on the hopeless fight of challenging his record.
After the 9/11 attacks, a similar aura of invincibility surrounded George W. Bush. It was not until 2005 when Hurricane Katrina swamped Bush’s heroic image that some shine also washed off Reagan’s legacy, whose anti-government attitudes and tough-guy foreign policy had inspired Bush’s approach to governing.
But old habits die hard. To this day, many Democrats find it politically comforting to invoke Reagan’s name as they try to burnish their bipartisan credentials or ingratiate themselves with Republicans and conservative-minded independents.
However, at this critical juncture of Campaign 2008, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have discovered there is a risk in playing this game. An angry Democratic “base,” which has grown weary of Democratic leaders bowing to Republican power, is in no mood to hear sweet nothings whispered about Ronald Reagan.
Many rank-and-file Democrats are furious at how much harm the false Republican narrative of Ronald Reagan’s golden age has done to the nation.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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