On Hannity & Colmes recently, conservative pundit Oliver North sought to portray Barack Obama as an "empty suit," at which point Democratic political strategist Bob Beckel erupted, "That's what they said about Ronald Reagan." Beckel went on to make the case that Obama's candidacy resembles the Reagan candidacy of 1980.
Is it possible that Barack Hussein Obama is the next Ronald Wilson Reagan? Well, Reagan too was a strong advocate for "change." When Reagan ran for office the economy was in a shambles. Inflation was in double digits, growth was stagnant, interest rates were high, and the stock market was barely higher than it was a decade earlier. Abroad, the Soviet bear had gobbled up 10 countries between 1974 and 1980. There were 100,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan. In Iran, U.S. policy had helped topple the Shah and usher in the Ayatollah Khomeini. Hostages were being held by Islamic radicals. President Carter diagnosed Americans as suffering from a kind of national depression which he called "malaise." Clearly change was in order.
But Reagan was a man of large ideas. He positioned his career against the big idea of the twentieth century, namely collectivism. Reagan saw collectivism in a menacing Soviet empire abroad, and an expanding welfare state at home. When I first came to America the national ethos had been set by John F. Kennedy who told young people that if they were idealistic and caring, they should join the Peace Corps. To Kennedy it was the government servant who was the true noble American. Reagan disputed this. To him it was not the bureaucrat but the entrepreneur who was the embodiment of American idealism and greatness. Reagan sought to bring about a cultural shift in America in which parents would rather see their children become inventors and business owners rather than paper-pushers in the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Reagan also had concrete ideas about how to bring about his grand aspirations. He sought to roll back the Soviet empire by deploying Pershing and Cruise missiles in Europe. He sought to deploy missile defenses to shoot down Soviet missiles and also to invite the Russians into a defensive arms race that he knew they couldn't win. He proposed bringing the top marginal tax rate down from 70 percent to 28 percent. He proposed a 30 percent across-the-board tax cut. He sought a restrictive monetary policy to wring inflation out of the economy, combined with tax cuts to unleash entrepreneurial initiative. He backed privatization of government activities that could be better performed by the private sector.
Let's leave aside Reagan's astounding accomplishments in actually getting his ideas implemented, and the great political and cultural revolution they produced. Let's just focus on the fact that Reagan had the vision and he had the specific policies to produce it. Where is Obama's vision for America that goes beyond "bringing us together"? How exactly does Obama propose to do this? What are his imaginative fiscal and monetary proposals? If Obama wants to get troops out of Iraq, what is his alternative strategy for winning the war against radical Islam? Does he have anything more to offer other than the vacuous "really going after Bin Laden"? To ask these questions is to answer them.
Of late Obama has been responding to charges of inexperience by saying, in effect, that experience doesn’t matter. And there is a grain of truth in what he says. True, people with experience sometimes screw up. But in the end Obama’s argument is a non-sequitur. Just because good generals sometimes make bad maneuvers, it doesn’t mean that military companies should from now on be headed by people who have never previously served in combat. Experienced skaters sometimes slip and fall. Still, it doesn’t follow that the U.S. Olympic team should therefore be made up of people who haven’t skated before. The conventional wisdom is that it would be harder for John McCain to beat Hillary Clinton than it would be for him to beat Barack Obama. From what we've seen of Obama so far, I’m not sure this is so. But it may be useful for let Democrats think this. The party that by all reckoning should win the White House in November may yet snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.