THE BLOG
12/13/2010 08:08 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Two Reaganite Presidents: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama

Ronald Reagan was not a political (or any other kind of) thinker; he was a studio contract actor who went into politics and succeeded so well that he must have sold his soul to the devil -- or so someone who watched a lot of the kinds of movies he made might think. Nevertheless, there is a configuration of positions that have come to be associated with his name. "Reaganism" implies a deeply anti-democratic opposition to the welfare state, the labor movement, and indeed to any and all forms of public provision that empower the people, as distinct from economic elites. And it implies unstinting support for the Evil Empire - not the one he railed against and is supposed (incorrectly) to have helped undo, but the one the American government superintends. Reaganism's underlying spirit -- "rugged individualism" gone awry and turned nasty -- is as old as the republic itself. But had the New Deal and Great Society not given expression to a more generous America, leaving the mean spirited with something to roll back, and had two world wars not made the United States the driving force behind world capitalism and the main guardian of the ancient régime, quashing conservatism's isolationist impulse, Reaganism, as it coalesced from the sixties on, would never have come into being.

Even before Reagan came onto the scene, Reaganites had a strategy: to cast the state into a permanent fiscal crisis so that it couldn't afford to do much of anything useful. Lowering taxes, always a winner in elections, was the means. In time, tax cutting became a moral imperative in its own right. Then, in recent years, after the Bush cuts (the most blatant wealth redistribution scheme in American history) and two unfunded Bush (now Obama) wars, a new strategy for quashing any prospect of an affirmative state has glommed onto the old one: deficit reduction. That imperative makes everything, even "entitlements," vulnerable; everything except the one thing that makes us all vulnerable -- profligate spending for endless wars and for the worldwide system of military bases that sustain them.

The people around Reagan gave Reaganism its shape, and the simpletons who mobilized under its banner became the true believers. Their political descendants are with us still -- in establishment Republican circles as much as in the Tea Party. But it wasn't Reagan-inspired Republican malevolence that is mainly responsible for bringing us to the morass in which we now find ourselves: it was someone who knew better but who wanted, above all, "to remain viable in the system." The system was corporate dominated Washington and the man's name was Bill Clinton.

It was he who put the kybosh on welfare "as we know it," who carried the deregulation of almost everything to absurd extremes, who rode "free trade" and other nostrums of global capitalism for all they are worth, and who, with a few well timed "humanitarian interventions," dispatched "the Vietnam syndrome" once and for all. He was poised to go after social security too, as only a Democrat could; and he would have, but for the troubles caused by his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. That intern did America more good with one "improper relationship" than Hillary Clinton has with all her "public service."

Like Reagan, Clinton was lucky; while he was president, there was as much peace as an empire with the world for its footprint can expect, and as much prosperity as there can be in the midst of capitalist turbulence. And before 9/11, there was no call to pull back on civil liberties and the rule of law, the way Bush and then Obama have. Thus liberals look back on the Clinton years with nostalgia. But the Bush-Obama wars, with all their dire consequences, and the economic collapse that Bush encouraged and that Obama has only barely mitigated would not have been possible but for Bill Clinton's "transformative presidency" and its consequences for the Democratic Party.

In 2008, it seemed that the best reason to prefer Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton was to lessen the extent of the Clintonite restoration that Republican incompetence made all but inevitable. There were few policy differences between Obama and Clinton; they were both creatures of the center-right of a rightward skewed political spectrum. But the hope was that, with Obama in the White House, there would at least be cosmetic differences, some of which might matter. The failure of that expectation was the first of many disappointments to follow. Under Obama, just about every Clintonite who is still ambulatory got back into government; even Hillary Clinton herself.

Now if there is anything that Barack Obama is worse at than negotiating with bullies, it is drawing obvious conclusions that contradict the wisdom of liberal pundits. This is why, thanks to the much deserved "shellacking" the Democrats took in the midterm elections, he decided to become even more Clintonite, and therefore more Reaganite, than the wily Slickster himself. Dick Morris, the inventor of "triangulation," may have crossed too far over into the dark side to resume his pre-toe-sucking White House role, but triangulation is back in. Therefore, expect Obama not just to keep on dissing his base, Rahm Emanuel style, but Congressional Democrats too, expect him to try even harder to "reach out" to the Republican Congress, and expect Reaganite ventures that no Republican would dare attempt. How fitting that, last Friday, Obama turned his own press conference over to Bill. Hillary would never have done that! Could it be that there would be less Clintonism now, that our politics would be less Reaganite, had she been the Democrats' nominee?

Before the November election, one would not have thought so. To be sure, Obama was in the pocket of the corporations and the generals, and in the thrall of nefarious interest groups, from the get-go; and Reaganism is the blood that sustains them. But when the need to stimulate the economy was greatest, Obama did mix real stimulus programs with tax cuts. Now, he's backing away even from that bit of non-Reaganite common sense. From now on, it'll just be tax cuts. The forecast is clear: post-election Obama, so far from starting to work on the "change" he seemed to promise two years ago, will instead be more popish than the pope.

The Progressive Movement and then the New Deal and Great Society worked, to the extent they did, by saving capitalism from capitalists. Reaganism does the opposite: it panders to the most myopic and greedy capitalist interests. That can serve Republicans well, at least in the short run; they know how to do their paymasters' bidding - it's their vocation, after all -- and the paymasters return the favor. But when Democrats mimic them, they just seem sleazy or weak or both. It's a losing strategy. But to realize that, one would have to look beyond the conventional wisdom manufactured and peddled on NPR and other "liberal" media. This Obama cannot or will not do.

Needless to say, Reaganite presidents are kinder and gentler than their electoral rivals. It helps too that, they dare not antagonize their "base" too blatantly, though in Obama's case, his supporters' willingness to overlook everything he doesn't do and to spin much of what he does has been mind-boggling. Maybe now, after his capitulation to Mitch McConnell, that will change. But I'm not holding my breath. And I'm certainly not counting on "progressives" in Congress to hold the line; remember they're the ones who were ready to go to the mat for the public option! The administration is now boasting that Obama will get his deal through, and he most likely will. In our duopolistic party system, those who cave can even claim - falsely, but not implausibly -- that they are the reasonable ones. After all, the Republicans were the best - perhaps the only -- argument Obama had going into the last elections, and that hasn't changed.

Reaganite presidents are more benign than the Republican variety but, from a moral point of view, they are more reprehensible -- because they know better, because their Reaganism is insincere, cynical and opportunistic. Clinton has been an opportunist for so long that it is unclear what he now thinks, but his inclinations probably do still lie with those whose pain he says he feels. Shame on him, therefore, for having triangulated over to the Reaganite side. Obama, being better informed and smarter and with fewer opportunistic "compromises" under his belt, understands the evils of Reaganism better still. No doubt, he also knows what ought to be done and what he, as President, must do to get it done. Shame on him, therefore, all the more.