There have been a lot of references to Ronald Reagan lately, with President Obama quoting him to reinforce his own point of view during the debt ceiling debate, Democrats releasing a video of Reagan seeming to endorse their point of view, and pundits like Joan Walsh declaring that President Obama is the "Reagan" figure in the debate.
Leaving aside the disingenuousness of these comparisons -- yes, Reagan did once support raising taxes to get spending cuts he wanted, but later regretted the move, with one adviser calling it "the greatest domestic error" of the administration. Instead, let's look at this new-found love of a president that liberals loathed back in the 1980s.
I was no political or news junkie back then, but one of the few things that managed to seep into my youth-addled brain was the hatred of Reagan among Democrats. At that time, I was heavily involved in the arts world. I'd gone to a music conservatory, and I was singing with some choirs, opera companies and the like. During breaks, I remember hearing passionate grumbling about Reagan, and even a bitter denouncement of Nancy Reagan when she decided to replace the White House china. I recall her being criticized, too, for her choice of a mastectomy over a lumpectomy when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. (Does it get much lower than that?) I'm sure it would be ridiculously easy to find columns, commentary, news articles and more scathingly critical of Reagan during those years.
The point is, Reagan was not beloved at all by those on the left. He was loathed. So this new appreciation for him involves some "false memories."
Among those is one that's seeped into the greater consciousness-- the notion of Reagan, the Great Communicator. Whenever my husband and I would hear that appellation, we'd look at each other and say, "huh?"
We cringed watching Reagan in debates and answering questions from the press. He could give a good speech, sure, but isn't that the minimum standard of communication skill -- being able to read, without stumbling, words someone else has written for you?
We came to the conclusion that the Great Communicator label was, in fact, not praise but veiled insult. It implied that he was able to "sell" his ideas well, not that his ideas (of limited government and strong defense) had merit on their own.
Today, I picked up the Wall Street Journal to discover that Peggy Noonan, former Reagan speechwriter, was pretty much saying the same thing, as she discussed the problems President Obama faced during the debt ceiling debate. He famously told Rep. Eric Cantor not to "call his bluff" (a Freudian slip?) because he'd "take this to the American people."
He had used the Reagan analogy enough to actually believe it, I guess, and he also had mistakenly bought into the idea that Reagan prevailed because his speeches connected with the American people.
But taking "this to the American people" didn't work. Whatever his fine attributes, Obama can't be considered a "great communicator" any longer. His rhetoric no longer soars. The teleprompter is a constant reminder that his words are studied and carefully chosen, at least as much to avoid offense as to persuade.
And this brings me to Noonan's final point: "Democrats were sure Reagan was wrong," she wrote, "so they explained his success to themselves by believing that it all came down to some kind of magical formula involving his inexplicably powerful speeches. They misdefined his powers and saddled themselves with an unrealistic faith in the power of speaking." She went on:
"But speeches aren't magic. A speech is only as good as the ideas it advances. Reagan had good ideas. Obama does not.
"The debt-ceiling crisis revealed Mr. Obama's speeches as rhetorical kryptonite. It is the substance that repels the listener."
I couldn't agree more. By misinterpreting the history of Reagan, President Obama mistakenly believes that rhetoric will win the day. Talk is cheap, though, and a skeptical American public has always known that. If they bought what Reagan was saying, it was because they liked the ideas, not the words themselves.