01/24/2008 12:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Progressive Reagans" vs. Triangulation

Barack Obama said this about Hillary Clinton on Keith Olbermann's show: "I will get the people who voted for her. Now the question is, could she get the people who voted for me?" Whether that's a legitimate point or an act of party disloyalty may depend on your point of view, but I think it's a fair question.

Some of us have been begging the Clinton campaign for a long time to stop trying to reach out to independents and disaffected Republicans with GOP-lite triangulation. It won't move independents -- because they're antipartisan, not "bipartisan." Republicans won't buy any of the leading Dems as extensions of Bush/Cheney militarism, and buying into their frames about torture or the Middle East only makes it more difficult to make real political change. (Remember when she said the Bush administration was "downplaying" Iran as a nuclear threat?)

Now we have the phony "scandal" around Obama's Reagan comments, including a Clinton radio ad that borrows Karl Rove's use of selective audio edits to mislead listeners. There has also been some ugly push-polling, and apparently some nasty robocalls too. That won't convince people that the Democrats will change what they don't like about politics.

Here's what Obama was really saying, if you listen to his full comments: That Ronald Reagan took ideas that were out of political favor and re-injected them into the mainstream, thereby changing the course of political history. Conservatism was nearly a dead ideology until Reagan came along and brought it back into dominance. Obama was also saying that Bill Clinton managed to be elected by triangulating and "splitting the difference." But by failing to articulate for an ideology, he didn't reverse the Reagan transformation. He served only himself, while Reagan served his movement.

What progressive wouldn't want a "progressive Reagan"? That leader could alter the political landscape and allow progressive ideas to dominate the political landscape. The progressive agenda appeals to the basic values of most Americans, but hasn't been articulated well enough to create a transformational movement.

And what Democrat wouldn't want to win disaffected Republicans and more independents? That's all Obama was saying -- and behind the deceptive rhetoric the Clintons, who themselves are close personal friends with George and Barbara Bush, know that perfectly well.

Could Obama be that "progressive Reagan"? I believe it's possible. Perhaps John Edwards could be, too. Could Hillary? I can't know -- because, unlike her rivals, she hasn't tried. Especially on foreign policy, she has consistently ceded ground to the Republicans rather than challenging them. (To be fair to Hillary, Edwards was just as bellicose when he was in the Senate, although he's forcefully changed since then. And Obama missed the Kyl/Lieberman vote, which is unfortunate -- but when it came to that Iraq War Resolution, I wish both Hillary and Edwards had just voted "present.")

Sen. Clinton has indicated her desire for a long-term presence in Iraq. She and Bill have waffled on torture. And now she's airing deceptive ads. If she goes up against John McCain, which of them will seem more like a principled, "different" kind of politician to independents and disaffected Republicans?

Obama was right. When faced with a choice between a triangulator and a potential "progressive Reagan," I'll take the Democratic Ronnie any day. It's not too late for the Clintons to change tack and get on the right road on this question, but the hour's growing late -- and they're moving in the wrong direction.