Scarred by Reagan

Part of the Maginot Line

Generals, so the hoary maxim goes, are always prepared to fight the last war. Building on the lessons of World War I, France constructed the Maginot Line — an ultramodern defensive line of fortifications — along its border with Germany, but not on the Franco-Belgian border. In the spring of 1940, Hitler’s armies invaded Belgium, and after conquering that small country, crossed into France. The Maginot Line was effective, so the German Army simply outflanked it. In the United States, the world’s most superb military cannot shake the trauma of Vietnam. It colors all military decisions, from where the nation will deploy troops to the strategy used in conflicts.

Representatives Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Politicians, too, it seems, are often mired in the past. Or, at least, older politicians cannot forget past painful political experiences. Nowhere is this more evident than in the generational divide within the Democratic Party. On issue after issue, the younger Democratic members of the House — Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, among others — call for bold action, only to hear party elders — lead by Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California — say, yes, we agree with you, but now is not the time. Push too far too fast, older Democrats argue, and there will be a backlash for Republicans to exploit.

Pelosi and her generational peers — Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House Majority Leader, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and, applying this analysis to the presidential race, former Vice President Joe Biden — all came of age in the shadow of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 landslide victory over President Jimmy Carter. The rout that year saw not only Carter’s defeat, but also the ouster from the Senate of a number of liberal Democrats who had defined the party for a generation: Frank Church of Idaho, Warren Magnuson of Washington, and George McGovern of South Dakota, the party’s 1972 presidential nominee. 

Ronald Reagan

The lesson the now older Democrats took from the trauma of 1980 was that the party had moved too far to the left in the late 1960s and 1970s in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Reagan’s victory was the inevitable result in what — or so Pelosi, et al. believed — was a center-right country. Future events only strengthened their conviction: Reagan’s even bigger landslide victory four years later and the subsequent triumph of the rather inept George H.W. Bush — despite the Iran-Contra scandal and eight years of Republican control — over Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who had held a 20-point lead in the polls.

Bill Clinton

Even when Democrats won, battle-scarred veterans like Pelosi, Schumer, Hoyer, and Biden, learned the lessons of moderation: Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 came only because Ross Perot’s presence in the race kept either major party candidate from gaining 50 percent of the vote and Clinton eked out a win because he was a centrist Democrat. In his first term, Clinton signed into law the controversial 1994 crime bill, originally written by Biden and which bolstered Clinton’s centrist bona fides. Clinton ran for reelection in 1996 and governed as a Republican moderate. “The era of big government is over,” he declared in his 1996 State of the Union address. Then, Clinton proved it by working with Republicans on enacting Republican ideas on welfare reform and Wall Street deregulation.

The tendency to move toward the center continued during the presidency of Barack Obama. Obamacare was framed not as a human right but as a reform that would reduce budget deficits. The heart of the new system was the individual mandate, a Republican idea borrowed in the hope — misplaced — of garnering GOP votes in Congress. Same for the stimulus package, which was long on tax cuts — to appeal, again, misguidedly, to Republicans — and short on actual stimulus projects.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi

Pelosi is liberal, but she fears progressive Democrats will move the party too far to the left. “Own the center, own the mainstream,” she says, adding, avoid the “exuberances that exist in our party.” “Exuberances” refers to Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. This is the voice of Democrats who grew up in the years of Reagan. But, younger Democrats — Omar, Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley — matured in the  years of Republican obstructionism when the party veered far to the right. For these Democrats, Republicans should not be coddled, they should be beaten. And, progressive issues — such as Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, a $15-dollar-an-hour minimum wage, free college education — should not be avoided, but extolled and advocated.

This divide spills into the presidential race, with Biden the candidate who bears the scars of the Reagan years. Most of the younger candidates are more outspokenly progressive than the former Delaware senator. The two exceptions to the age differential split — Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — turn out not to be exceptions upon closer inspection. Sanders is not really a Democrat and has few ties to the Democratic establishment. Warren voted for Carter in 1980, but she was largely apolitical in those years. It was only in the 2000s that Warren became involved in national politics and found her progressive voice.

The Democratic base appears to be moving left. At least, that is true of Democrats likely to vote in the primaries. If that is the case, then a progressive Democrat with bold ideas — Sanders, Warren, Senator Kamala Harris of California — could be the party’s presidential nominee. A victory by a progressive finally might salve the wounds of the Reagan years. Then, Nancy Pelosi could shed her calculated caution and push a truly progressive agenda through Congress. It is time!

Posted July 9, 2019

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