Sunday, January 20, 2008

Should He Have Said It?

A couple days ago I gave my take on Obama's comments in praise of Ronald Reagan. I offered the opinion that Obama was talking about Reagan's ability to capture a certain traditional American buoyancy in his rhetoric, tell people they were better and stronger than the times in which they lived, and offered the promise of better days even in the midst of either glum despair or even serious socio-economic dislocation (the "recession of 1982-1983" featured double-digit unemployment, the industrial emasculation of the Great Lakes, and accelerated the shift from manufacturing to a service economy). His was certainly the victory of style over substance, yet it was a style that resonated with voters, even as they voiced disapproval of the substance.

I wonder, however, whether what he said was either clear enough for people to understand or, even if so, was wise. From Hullabaloo, we have this report of comments from Donna Brazile for the Democrats, and Bill Bennett, looking more bloated than usual as he tries to heap faint praise upon Obama, damning him in the process (and sounding a bit overly conscious of Obama's race; kind of odd from a "color-blind" conservative):
On CNN, Donna Brazile says [Clinton] pulled it out because she talked about economics and criticized Obama for saying nice things about Ronald Reagan, because there's no nostalgia for Reagan in the Democratic party

Bill Bennett replied, "a serious black candidate is saying to people, including his own party members 'embrace part of the Reagan memory and the Reagan legacy.' I think this is actually Martin Luther King's dream about color blindness. That he's being punished for it tells you that there are still a lot of people in the Democrat Party who have to grow up."

Of the two comments, its possible that Brazile's is actually more correct, at least in part. Bennett's "serious black candidate" is a slam at Jesse Jackson, who ran quite a serious campaign in 1988, and also just too aware of Obama's racial identity. Somehow, he has to keep slipping in a mention of the fact that Obama's African-American. Perhaps, for Bennett, Obama is like Samuel Johnson's talking dog and woman preacher. As for what Bennett says - please. To believe that a Democrat would insist that we embrace "Reagan's legacy" is hogwash. Obama was speaking about capturing a moment, understanding the zeitgeist and using it to one's electoral advantage. As for colorblindness, I would believe it if Bennett didn't keep mentioning the fact that Obama is a black man every time he spoke about him.

In any event, even with those criticisms, I think that it might be possible that either some just don't want to entertain the possibility that Obama said what I heard him say, or that perhaps he didn't even say it. If so, that's deeply troubling. If the former is the case, however, we have the problem of trying to interpret a somewhat murky statement which also invokes one of the great bogeymen for the Democratic Party, thus alienating many Democratic voters. In that case, while an astute observation, it may not have been the best idea in the world to say what he said the way he said it.

I've gone from thinking it was pretty cagey, even smart politics, to wondering if maybe he shouldn't have let well-enough alone. Of course, Reagan invoked FDR all the time, even as he attempted to overturn the New Deal (and certainly broke the New Deal electoral coalition), and people just ate it up. So there is some precedent for this kind of thing.

All the same, like the week-long tussle over race-versus-gender, we might have the makings of a tempest in a media teapot here, and Obama may have hurt himself in the process. If he has to explain his statement over and over again, and does so without clarifying it for those who don't want to hear what he (might have) said, it is possible this distraction could wound him electorally. Which is too bad. I think it could have been the opening for a good discussion on where the country is right now, and where it might be going; instead, it might turn out to be people calling Obama all sorts of names, and conservatives like Bill Bennett gleefully telling anyone who will listen that a "black man" embraces "Reagan's legacy". That's one thing I do not want to hear.

Virtual Tin Cup

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