Obama, Clinton, Reagan: Change That Matters

05/25/2011 12:25 pm ET
  • Marshall Ganz Senior Lecturer in Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School

Now that the South Carolina primary has shown that the Clintons' assault on Obama backfired, we're still left with the question of what it was all about. Was it all about short-term tactics? Or was something else at stake? Why try portraying Obama as a fan of Ronald Reagan and the Republican "ideas" of the 1980s and '90s? Although the claims didn't stick, why were the Clintons so committed to pressing them?

Deep change in the values that shape our politics, policy, and view of government hasn't happened very often -- in fact, only five or six times. When it has happened, it has been the work of popular movements that stir broad enough public engagement to mobilize a governing coalition with the power to achieve real change.

As broad movements, they draw upon one or another of the two major strands of American political culture: values of community and of the individual. The Jacksonian "revolution" of the 1830s, for example, expressed values of community, collaboration, and equality. The Reagan "revolution" of the 1980s, on the other hand, tapped values of individualism, competition, and inequality. Each drive for change anchored itself first in one political party, extended its influence to independents, and eventually to substantial minority wings of the other party -- birthing a new governing coalition. It is this breadth of public support -- not one or another policy proposal -- that enabled them to conceive, enact and implement sea changes in American politics.

The last governing coalition rooted in the Democratic Party was the New Deal forged by FDR during 1930s. Although deeply flawed, especially in terms of race, the New Deal explicitly rooted public policy in values of community, collaboration, and equality -- and succeeded in building outward from its Democratic Party base to include a wide range of independents and Republicans.

That this coalition survived after World War II is due in no small part to the fact that Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower decided not to challenge New Deal successes, but rather to ratify them -- Social Security, financial market regulation, consumer protection, and a balance of power between labor and management. But during the 1960s the long postponed racial, gender, and generational conflict -- and Viet Nam -- tore apart not only the coalition, but the nation, generating a popular reaction that fueled a new conservative movement of which Ronald Reagan became the leader.

By 1980, this conservative insurgency, having organized a new governing coalition, found itself with the power to act. Based in the Republican Party it incorporated wide swaths of Democrats and Independents -- and led to nearly three decades of conservative government.

When Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, many of us hoped for a return not to the programs of the New Deal, but to its values -- a politics that viewed us as one people, collaborating with one another, and committed to equality.

But that's not what happened. Instead, Clinton did for Reagan what Eisenhower had done for Roosevelt -- he ratified Reagan's success, reaffirmed that the "era of big government was over" and presided over a continued dismantling of American industry, a continued rise in inequality, and a fever of Wall Street speculation. Instead of challenging the old governing coalition, Clinton reinforced it, and remained trapped by it.

That's what Obama wants to change. That's why he reaches out beyond the Democrats' base to Republicans and independents -- not to avoid change but to challenge Americans, whatever their party, to embrace change as profound as the Reagan Revolution -- but this time one that's unalterably committed to restoring values of community, collaboration, and equality that have been too long marginalized in our public life.

In truth, Obama's candidacy is an indictment not just of George Bush's legacy, but also of Bill and Hillary Clinton's failure after eight years to challenge the failed conservative coalition -- and that's what really drives the anger, the attacks, and the assaults from the Clinton camp.

It would be a tragedy of major proportion if the Clintons succeed again in turning hope into wish, opportunity into disappointment, and transformation into accommodation.