There were several times during this week’s Democratic National Convention when delegates could be excused if they thought they’d stumbled into the wrong party’s meeting. For President Obama, one of GOP candidate Donald Trump’s greatest sins was replacing Ronald Reagan’s vision of “a shining city on a hill” with “’a divided crime scene’ that only he can fix.” Democratic standard bearer Hillary Clinton picked up this theme, criticizing Trump for taking the GOP “from ‘Morning in America’ to ‘Midnight in America.’” One former Reagan staffer, who touted his efforts to build a statute honoring The Gipper in his own speech, summed up the DNC’s take on Reagan with a famous cliché “I knew Ronald Reagan. I worked for Ronald Reagan. Donald Trump, you are no Ronald Reagan.”
It was a testament to the Democratic Party’s belief that Mr. Trump is so far off the deep end that many Republicans would rather vote for Hillary Clinton then risk the nation’s future on the erratic real estate mogul’s mercurial temper. DNC speakers, including the party’s two most prominent figures, spent much of the evening leading Republicans to water in the hopes that they will drink it.
Nevertheless, liberals should take heart. Clinton praised Reagan just long enough to obscure her plans to bury him. And, in doing so, she borrowed a page from Reagan’s own playbook.
“The Dream Conceived by Our Founding Fathers”
Thirty-six years ago, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan stood at a podium in Detroit to accept his own party’s nomination for the presidency. His speech is worth reading, in no small part because it shows that Reagan himself was not yet fluent in the individualistic, anti-government language that would define his presidency. Reagan slammed President Jimmy Carter for being unfair, not just to business, but to “labor,” which was “engaged in a losing struggle just trying to stay even.” He proclaimed it “essential” that America maintains “the strength of the safety net beneath those in society who need help.” He even quoted the man whose legacy he’d come to tear down, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (though Reagan admittedly did so to justify frugality on the part of government).
Four years later, the economy was booming — largely due to tough decisions by the Carter-appointed Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker — and Reagan was riding the unearned credit he’d received for this explosion of prosperity to a landslide reelection victory. Along the way, he accepted his party’s presidential nomination once again, and he delivered a speech that will sound far more familiar to free market fundamentalists than the tributes to unions and entitlements Reagan offered in Detroit.
The choice between Democrats and Republicans, President Reagan told his party, was “not one of left or right, but of up or down.” America could either move “down through the welfare state to statism, to more and more government largesse accompanied always by more government authority, less individual liberty and, ultimately, totalitarianism” or it could embrace “the dream conceived by our Founding Fathers, up to the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with an orderly society.”
The individual must always be paramount in Ronald Reagan’s America, and any attempt to build a better nation through collective action must always be treated with grave skepticism because such action exacts a terrible price. Reagan’s core message was that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. That we lose something precious when we join together, whether through taxation supporting social programs or through governmental efforts to rein in the excesses of the most powerful. So we are better off leaving each individual to fend for themselves.
“None of Us Can Do It Alone”
This was the vision that Hillary Clinton tried to cut down Thursday night in Philadelphia. Surrounded by cheering delegates (and a handful of yellow-shirted hecklers) holding up signs reading “Stronger Together,” Clinton told an entirely different American story than Reagan’s tale of dead white men who dreamed of “the ultimate in individual freedom.”
When representatives from 13 unruly colonies met just down the road from here, some wanted to stick with the King. Some wanted to stick it to the king, and go their own way. The revolution hung in the balance. Then somehow they began listening to each other… compromising… finding common purpose.
And by the time they left Philadelphia, they had begun to see themselves as one nation.
That’s what made it possible to stand up to a King. That took courage. They had courage. Our Founders embraced the enduring truth that we are stronger together.
To Hillary Clinton, this collective vision of American progress is an inheritance we must all embrace. “Every generation of Americans has come together to make our country freer, fairer, and stronger,” Clinton told the nation. “None of us can do it alone.”
Of course, it’s hardly a new observation to note that Republicans like to appeal to individual ruggedness while Democrats lean into collective solutions. The former flatters Americans who’ve achieved success while offering an excuse for conservative policies that do little to raise up the rest of the nation. The later provides a justification for polices that depend on collective sacrifice.
Liberalism, or any other theory of government that seeks to elevate the meek against the desires of the mighty, necessarily depends on collective action. In the state of nature, the strong man always prospers. It is only by uniting together that ordinary men and women can hope to exact concessions from the wealthiest and the most powerful.
But Hillary Clinton gets this reality in a way that, frankly, her own husband did not when he occupied the White House. Over the course of two decades and two very different Clintons, America has traveled from Bill Clinton’s claim that “the era of big government is over” to Hillary Clinton’s pledge to “pass the biggest investment in new, good-paying jobs since World War II” and to fund it by requiring “Wall Street, corporations, and the super rich” to “start paying their fair share of taxes.”
“Who Tells Your Story”
In fairness to Bill Clinton, Hillary benefits from a far more favorable political landscape than her husband. As Yale’s Jack Balkin wrote in 2012, Bill “entered the White House as the first Democrat elected since the Reagan Revolution, when the current conservative political regime was at its strongest.” As such, Bill Clinton “faced a hostile political climate and continually had to trim his sails.”
Balkin contrasts President Clinton with President Reagan, who “had the good fortune to take office when the New Deal regime and its electoral coalition were falling apart.” Blessed with a fractured opposition, Reagan became what political scientist Stephen Skowronek labels a “reconstructive” president — a leader who is able to define the fundamental assumptions that underlie our politics. Bill Clinton, by contrast, always had to govern within a box that Ronald Reagan had built for him.
The premise of Hillary Clinton’s DNC speech is that this box is ready to be torn down. That Americans — or at least, a majority coalition of voters — will decide that the benefits of striving for our collective welfare exceed the costs. That the nation will, to borrow one of President Obama’s most underappreciated lines, “choose our better history.”
In a follow up to his 2012 essay, Balkin notes that the question of whether Obama will be remembered as a reconstructive president like Reagan or a more constrained leader like Bill Clinton has not yet been answered.
For most of his presidency, Obama lived in a kind of limbo between these two extremes. His policy choices were perpetually constrained by, to borrow a phrase from conservative thought leader Sarah Palin, right-winging, bitter-clinging proud clingers to a highly distilled version of Reaganism. Yet Obama also never surrendered to Reagan’s anti-governmentalism in the way Bill Clinton did. As a defiant Obama told his Republican critics during his second inaugural, “the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias.”
As Balkin writes, “we know that Reagan is a reconstructive president after George H.W. Bush’s election, and Bill Clinton’s statement that ‘the era of Big Government is over.’” The history of every presidency, and the role it plays in shaping our vision of what is possible, is still being written long after that president steps down. If Hillary wins, Republicans will need to confront a world where they have thrice been repudiated, and Democrats will distance themselves even further from the era of Bill Clinton — when even control of the White House itself could not prevent them from being scared of their own shadow.
In a somewhat awkward moment at the end of her DNC speech, Hillary Clinton borrows from a drinking song from the musical Hamilton — “we may not live to see the glory” but “let us gladly join the fight.” It is an unintentionally morbid moment, since, in the musical itself, similar words are uttered by drunken revolutionaries who are proclaiming their willingness to die in order to see the revolution succeed.
A more on-the-nose Hamilton quote would be General George Washington’s advice to Alexander Hamilton, who warns the young solider that he has no control “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”
When Hillary Clinton took the podium Thursday night, she carried two awesome burdens. The first is that, as Andrew Sullivan notes, Clinton is now the only thing standing between America and the closet thing it has ever seen to fascist rule. Clinton is running “to save liberal democracy.”
Her other burden is the weight of the last eight years. If she prevails, the Obama presidency could become a mortal blow to the do-it-yourself individualism of Ronald Reagan.
History, in other words, has its eyes on Hillary Clinton. And how we come to view that history will decide what will be possible for a generation of American leaders.