Thursday, September 29, 2011

Ronald Reagan Is Still Dead

"Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead."

Chevy Chase
Saturday Night Live (c. 1976)

It's fashionable these days — and justifiably so — for people to complain that Washington is broken.

But that really isn't new. I mean, folks have been complaining about the damn guv'ment for as long as I can remember.

That's a truism of politics.

And the party that is out of power always wants to take power from the other party. Always.

That's another truism of politics.

So, in spite of the racial angle that is introduced into the 2012 presidential campaign because of Barack Obama's pigmentation, I don't see anything special about the desire of the Republican Party to defeat him.

Others may see racists lurking in the shadows, but I see politics as usual. Didn't the Republicans openly seek to defeat Bill Clinton in 1996? And didn't they desire — and achieve — victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980?

For that matter, didn't Democrats wring their hands at the thought of re–electing George W. Bush in 2004? Didn't they unite behind Clinton in 1992 in large part because they desperately wanted the elder Bush and Dan Quayle to leave and 12 years of Republican rule to end?

Politics is a competitive business, folks. The party that is out of power always wants to be the party that is in power. And the worse things are, the louder the opposition seems to be. It's always been that way.

The only thing that has really changed is the absence of civility. Politics was always rough and tumble when I was growing up, but neither side accused the other of being socialist or fascist.

All right, sometimes the discourse got out of line, like whenever someone accused someone else of being a communist. The red scares of the 1950s were hardly this country's finest hours.

Mostly, though, political campaigns were civil, and the discussions were serious. The politicians didn't focus on irrelevant issues — like flag burning or gay marriage or prayer in school — and try to smear each other or accuse each other of being unpatriotic or racist. Go back and look at the advertising and the speeches from the campaigns that were conducted just 25 years ago if you don't believe me.

Smearing opponents and playing on people's fears happened to work pretty well, politicians discovered, and now no one seems to know how to campaign for office without resorting to negative tactics.

I've read and heard from several Democrats — named and unnamed — who say Obama will have no choice but to "do what they do" and resort to negative campaigning to win re–election. That's probably true, but, to me, that seems a rather odd about–face for a president who won election running on a "hope and change" platform.

There's not much hope when there is no change.

But what really works is what voters can see and hear and feel. Maybe the reason so many people make their voting decisions based on what they can see in their lives — and not on what the politicians tell them they should see and hear and feel — is because they trust their own eyes a lot more than they trust any politician.

The people are smarter than the politicians give them credit for being. They're smart enough, anyway, to see through the smokescreens and self–serving rhetoric.

It was tough for the Republicans to get much traction against Clinton in 1996 because things were clearly improving. It was easier for the Democrats to make their case against the Republicans in 1992 than it had been four years earlier because the economy had deteriorated.

Likewise it was easier for Ronald Reagan and the Republicans to make their case in 1980 than it was for Bob Dole in 1996 because of the differences in the economies of those years.

I've said many times that I believe next year's election will be decided by the prevailing conditions and that the who part simply won't matter very much.

And I'll admit that it is possible that things will turn around before Election Day 2012 — but not too probable. Obama has apparently given up on his own call for civility in political discourse, and the Republicans have shown little, if any, interest in working with him. So nothing seems likely to get done until after the next election with this do–nothing government.

It feels like I'm watching a rerun of an episode that I have seen before — and didn't like the first time. I understand that many Democrats are anxious — as they should be. In terms of sheer numbers, there are more Americans who are unemployed or underemployed today than at any other time in U.S. history. Those who haven't run out of patience are in the process of doing so.

If Obama is defeated in 2012 — and I believe he will be — there will be, without a doubt, a segment of the population that will vote against him because of his race — just as there is a segment of the population that will vote for him for the same reason. But it is wrong for anyone to suggest that racism will be the sole reason for his defeat.

Many white Americans voted for Obama in 2008. He could not have been elected if they had not — but poll after poll after poll has shown that he has fallen well short of their expectations and he has been losing them.

Politicians don't have the luxury of choosing what the voters will use to evaluate them or their performances in office, but they do have the option of telling the voters what they think the voters should consider. (Whether the voters actually do consider what the politicians think they should is an entirely different matter — and a subject for another post.)

And one thing that seems to be constant in the GOP, from the candidates to the rank–and–file, is a desire for a Ronald Reagan for this era. I hear the candidates speaking of it, and it is clear they would like nothing better than to be mentioned in the same breath with Reagan, to be compared favorably to the "Great Communicator."

And I hear the rank–and–file speak longingly of Reagan — as if there had never been a time when he was dismissed by many, Republicans as well as Democrats, as reckless, simplistic, a cowboy actor out of his element whose shoot–first–and–ask–questions–later style would plunge the country into a nuclear war.

I guess there has always been a nostalgic element at work during presidential elections, but it seems to be stronger now than in any other election that I can remember. You can see it in the intense yearning on the Republican side for a figure like Reagan to emerge.

It reminds me of the old Weekend Update segments on Saturday Night Live in the 1970s, when Chevy Chase would announce that "Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead." There have been times in recent months when I have wanted to remind Republicans that Reagan has been dead for seven years — but I suspect that would not change the longing that exists for a strong leader.

Now, I rarely agreed with Reagan on policy, and I recoiled then (as I do now) at the blatant mixing of religion and politics, but Reagan really was a unique leader. I did not give him enough credit for that when he was president. Ideology was important, as it always is, but there was a quality in Reagan that exists in all great leaders. They are able to connect on some level with most Americans in spite of political differences.

I think this accounts for the somewhat "flavor of the month" approach the Republicans have been taking to the selection of their presidential nominee. They've been searching for the next Reagan.

Initially, of course, it was Mitt Romney who was seen as the front runner among the announced candidates, largely because voters knew who he was. Then attention shifted for awhile to Sarah Palin, even though she hadn't said she would run (and still hasn't). Next in the spotlight was Michele Bachmann, followed by Rick Perry, who — a la Ross Perot — catapulted into the lead without having really said anything.

But Perry's rising star seems to be crashing to earth now that he has said something — and ran into trouble as a result — so the search has gone on.

Then a straw poll in Florida prompted many to anoint Herman Cain as the front runner. (Where, I wonder, would the race–card players be if Cain won the GOP nomination?)

Tim Pawlenty got out of the race when his showing in the Iowa straw poll was short of his own expectations. He had too much ground to make up, critics said. I found that astonishing, given that no one has secured so much as a single delegate to the Republicans' 2012 convention.

Recently, there have been efforts to persuade Chris Christie of New Jersey to enter the race although the deadlines for getting a candidate's name on primary ballots are rapidly approaching. (The Washington Post says he is reconsidering his decision not to run, but that doesn't change the filing deadlines.)

Consequently, sensing that the field that exists today is the field that will compete in the primaries, that there will be no more new entries, Republicans seem to be returning to Romney as the one who is most likely to attract disgruntled independents and Democrats to their cause.

Frankly, I am encouraged by the fact that Republicans are showing at least a little maturity and deliberation in their decision. There have been many opportunities for them to jump on any old bandwagon, regardless of any reservations they may have about the candidate, in their eagerness to defeat Obama, and I am sure there are Republicans who have been tempted to do precisely that — to unite behind a candidate early.

Fortunately, most Republicans seem to have been resisting that temptation.

I'm glad Republicans are carefully examining each candidate, listening to what each has to say and taking their time — because I really do believe that the economy will decide the election, and nine out of 10 Americans currently say it is poor.

(The next president absolutely must make jobs his #1 priority — if not his only priority.)

That makes me think that 2012 will be a strongly anti–incumbent year. That doesn't mean that every incumbent will be defeated — unfortunately, many Americans are pleased with their own representatives but would happily vote against the ones from other districts and states if they could — but I think many incumbents will be defeated, and the presidency is the only race in which everyone, from the bluest of the blue states to the reddest of the red, can vote.

If that anti–incumbent mood is as great as I think it will be, the Republican presidential nominee, whoever that is, stands to benefit from it because the only way that people can express their displeasure is at the ballot box, and the Republican nominee will be the only real alternative — unless a viable third party emerges.

Since the 2012 Republican nominee will probably be the next president — and since I am an independent — I can only hope that they will be reasonable in reaching their decision, that they will choose someone who can reach across the aisle, as Reagan often did.

He won't be Reagan, though. Ronald Reagan is still dead.

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