Be that as it may...
I was talking with my older daughter, Cara, on the way to the airport Monday, and the topic turned to politics. We're both Obama supporters; I told her how happy I was for her, that she could experience such excitement for a candidate and an election season. Whether Obama wins or loses, he's made history, and we, as Americans, are part of a special moment in history. And agree with him or not, you have to admit, he's an intensely charismatic, inspiring political figure, a politician who has the ability and the potential to change the terms of the political debate in this country for a generation. He's likable, charming, has a marvelous way of putting across his message, and he seems to represent a turning point in our national conversation. Those who oppose him do so by attacking him for the very things that make him appealing -- his rhetoric, his sense of purpose (which they define as artificial, contrived), and his lack of "experience" (as if anyone who hasn't actually been president has the relevant experience to be president).
All of which makes Barrack Obama a lot like Ronald Reagan.
A confession: I was a Reagan Democrat. The things that attract me to Obama and the Democrats this election season are exactly the same things that attracted me to Reagan and the Republicans in 1980.
Let me explain.
Throughout my adult life until 1980, I'd been a faithful liberal and supporter of the Democratic party. I believed in affirmative rights, in high taxes on the rich, in government programs for the poor, in business regulation and consumer protection. I was against the war in Vietnam and I supported the Equal Rights Amendment. I wasn't too wild about school busing, but I understood the rationale. I had my doubts about the morality of abortion, but I was in favor of a woman's right to choose. I was, in short, a fairly typical moderate, left-leaning liberal of the 60s and 70s.
But by 1980, I was ready to be persuaded otherwise. The Vietnam war was over, but then came the horrors of the Kymer Rouge in Laos. America's reputation as a moral power in the world was stained, and our ability to project our power and defend our people was revealed as an illusion by the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran. The economy was in a shambles; inflation was raging into double digits, and so were mortgage interest rates. There was a banking crisis. We seemed to be teetering on the brink of a recession or depression. The incumbent president had become irrelevant to the political process, seemed out of touch with the concerns of the people he was supposed to be leading, and the party he represented had nothing to offer in the way of new ideas or a fresh approach. Though it may not have been obvious to the hard core base of the party, the Democrats were at a loss for a defining message, a simple, clean, clear statement of purpose -- something that could inspire belief and support from those, like myself, who wanted something more than a promise of more of the same.
The Republicans, on the other hand, were on fire.
Sometime during the late 1970s, conservatives had seized the terms of debate, confronting the failed policies of the Democrats with an imaginative new interpretation of government's role in American life. And in the abstract, at least, their ideas made sense. They seemed to be based on fundamental principles of human behavior, and they were expressed with passion and clarity by smart true-believers like Milton Friedman and William Buckley. The Republicans had ideas; they had solutions to the malaise; they offered a new path, one that promised greater freedom for the individual, a stronger economy, and a restored sense of place for America in the world.
For someone whose faith in traditional Democratic policies had been shaken by the all-too-obvious failure of those policies -- and by my party's unwillingness either to admit or to address that failure -- I was eager for a change, for a new direction.
Ronald Reagan, bless his heart, offered me that change and pointed the way to a new direction.
I bought in, and honestly, I think I did the right thing.
Not because Reagan was right, or because the Republicans delivered on their promises of greater individual freedom, fiscal responsibility, and a restoration of America's moral stature in the world. I did the right thing because the whole point of the political process is to provide a responsible, controlled method of provoking change in the status quo. The American political process is a form of slow-motion, managed revolution. We've developed a way to produce tremendous social upheaval from time to time, in response to the flow of real world events and in accord with the patterns of history, and to do so without forcing our citizens to take to the streets with guns, or to build guillotines, or to exile failed leaders to small islands in the Mediterranean (much as we might like to).
At a time of suffocating stasis and calcified political thought, the Republicans offered change; they offered revolution; they promised a way out.
For the most part, they delivered on that promise. Whether my diehard liberal friends want to admit it or not, the initial years of the conservative revolution produced some positive results for Americans. Our stature in the world improved remarkably; we addressed, militarily, the failures of Vietnam; the increasing burden of taxes on average Americans was reduced; inflation dropped to historically low levels; houses became affordable again; business innovation boomed; and for the most part, Americans felt freer from government interference in their lives than they'd felt in a generation.
Sure, there were bumps along the way -- failures here and there, embarrassing gaffes and saddening disappointments of principle like Iran-Contra -- but there were spectacular successes as well. The fall of the Berlin wall; the collapse of the Soviet Union; a revolution in welfare; a reduction in crime. Were the Republicans and their theory of government responsible for all of this? Maybe; maybe not. But the fact is, they were in charge while these triumphs occurred, just as the Democrats were in charge during the dark days of Vietnam and stagflation and social unrest. Whether they were channeling the currents of history, or simply surfing on them, the fact is, from 1980 to 2006, the Republicans dominated American politics. For better or worse, those twenty-six years represent the Modern Conservative Era, just as the forty-eight years that preceded it represent the New Deal era.
And now it's over.
In 1980, the Democrats were burned out, demoralized, confused, and voiceless. They were led by an uninspiring, weary, and aged-beyond-his-years ex-Navy man who was forced to defend policies that had proven themselves to be an utter failure. The intellectual Left was intellectually bankrupt.
The country demanded change.
Anyone see a parallel between 1980 and 2008?
At a time when the country is once again exhausted by the failure of a political philosophy, by humiliation abroad, and by a leadership that seems truly out of touch with the concerns of average Americans, Barrack Obama and the Democratic party offer change. They are passionate in their principles; they believe strongly in their solutions; they offer us a way out.
They're on fire.
And for the first time in twenty-eight years, so is my heart.