WASHINGTON -- Last week was fairly traumatic for Democratic Party apparatchiks, who had to watch their leaders venerate Ronald Reagan -- Ronnie Raygun! -- either out of genuine sentiment or political necessity. Listening to Ted Kennedy express "immense respect and admiration" for the 40th president's steady hand might have been one thing, but when John Kerry declared that "Americans will bow their heads in prayer and gratitude that President Reagan left such an indelible stamp on the nation he loved," well, one can understand nostalgia for the epileptic rants of Howard Dean.
"It's beneficial that it's happening now so we can get all this over with," one Pollyanna posted on the Democratic Underground website a few hours after Reagan's passing. "We'd hate it to happen in July when Kerry should have the spotlight. And we'd hate it to happen any later in the year. This is fine. This is containable."
But is it? It is obvious that there was something more to the week of intense mourning following Reagan's death than simply the country weeping over the loss of an -- I nearly gag on the word it's been so overused -- "optimistic" American statesman. By "optimistic" left-leaning commentators meant sly, wily, and able to pull the wool over poor country bumpkins' eyes. At the popular website Daily Kos, a regular lectured lefties to look at the career of Ronald Reagan as a cautionary tale.
"While we rightly condemned Reagan for his extremism and hostility to the egalitarian ideals of his youth, perhaps we should take this occasion not only to remember Reagan's failings, but also to reflect upon the failings of the left that allowed the ascension of the extreme right," he wrote. "Let's never again allow ourselves to become so self-satisfied that we allow another Reagan to capture the hearts of everyday Americans."
This approach holds that Reagan's policies held no appeal in themselves. The Gipper succeeded on personality alone. It's wrong, of course. Policy matters. George H.W. Bush got bounced from office four years after Reagan for raising taxes despite his lying lips, and for completely neutering the Republican Party. Reagan Democrats were drawn to Ross Perot's concerns about deficits and immigrants as well as Bill Clinton's attacks on welfare.
The nightmare scenario for John Kerry & Co. is that Reagan's passing reminds people of the withering left-wing criticism of the man that liberals spent last week slavishly praising. The things they said about Reagan -- he's stupid, a liar, wrong on diplomacy, wrong on national defense -- are exactly the darts they throw at George W. Bush. Clearly the Dems were too short-sighted to understand Reagan's policies. Could they be making the same mistake again?
John Kerry admitted to the Boston Globe that some of his votes against weapons systems we now rely heavily upon were "ill advised" and "stupid in the context of the world we find ourselves in right now and the things that I've learned since then." So while he was battering Reagan over a "new arms race" in the 1980s, he was admittedly "stupid," but now we are supposed to believe that he has "learned" enough since to be dead on about Bush? That's not going to wash with a lot of folks.
ENTER BILL CLINTON with his new book to sell, My Life. Earlier this week, the Drudge Report proclaimed "After Reagan Week Comes Clinton Summer." The hope is that, starting with his appearance on 60 Minutes this Sunday, Bill Clinton will single-handedly change the subject. His presence is supposed to remind everyday folks about the 1990s boom, and therefore usher independents into John Kerry's corner.
Call me a cynic, but it won't work. If Clinton were a team player, it might, but Bill's been locked up writing this book so long he's looking to emote. In an interview with Vanity Fair last month, Clinton seemed uninterested in talking about the storied 1990s renaissance. Instead he chose to whine about how hard it is to write a book. He complained that he was "literally hardly sleeping. I am working around the clock. I am killing myself because I want [my memoirs] done." It had been quite hard enough to live his life the first time, thank you. "The second time has really been tough."
That's right, this time around Bill wants us to feel his pain. The idea that he will use the book tour as a soapbox to agitate for the election of John Kerry, or take the focus off himself for one second longer than necessary, is just laughable. "He is just self-absorbed," CNN quoted an anonymous associate of Clinton's as saying. "Totally. Not really interested in anything [anyone] does or what they think. Except what do they think about what he is doing and what he is saying."
The "Clinton Summer" will not buoy Democrats. Bill's fawning fans will turn out in droves, listening intently as he talks endlessly about the pain of writing his memoirs and about the book itself. He promises to "set the record straight," which essentially means he'll rehash scandals of the past. Maybe he'll even get his story straight this time.
Because he cannot escape the four walls of his own ego, Clinton's life story has only a bearing on the past, not the future. This has also been the hallmark of John "I was in Vietnam! I was in Vietnam! I was in Vietnam!" Kerry thus far. Reagan's legacy was a heady mix of a small ego with big ideas. Now, whose coattails would you rather be riding going into November?
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