Obama and Clinton on Reagan and Republicans

The Clinton team is right about some of Obama's remarks and wrong about others. But the campaign so far has been beanbag compared to what both will face from the GOP in November.

Published January 23, 2008 5:59PM (EST)

I was on MSNBC this morning with Pat Buchanan, who suggested the latest Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama sparring will hurt Democrats. I disagreed. (I'm not talking about the racial tension I saw in Las Vegas; I'm talking about normal hardball, on-the-issues politics.) Especially if Obama winds up the nominee, it will get him in fighting shape for the fall battle against the GOP. If Obama supporters really think the Clintons are being too tough on their guy, wait until he has a Republican opponent (who isn't Alan Keyes).

Clearly the Clintons have overstated some of their Obama critiques. Obama has been overwhelmingly against the Iraq war from the beginning, despite what former President Clinton says. Still, it's also true that he was muted about his opposition when he first got to the Senate; there were Illinois war opponents who wanted him to be tougher, but as a newcomer, he made the decision to vote with party leaders on funding and other issues. But he took memorable early stands on behalf of veterans (he was one of the first to respond to Mark Benjamin's revelation that wounded vets were having to pay for their meals at Walter Reed, for instance.)

I think the Clintons are closer to right on the question of Obama's words about Ronald Reagan to the editorial board of the Reno Gazette-Journal. Again, they overstated their case a little. Obama never said he "admired" Ronald Reagan, but you could fairly infer that from the words he used. Many people are throwing around snippets from that interview to prove whatever point they want to make. That's politics. I've watched the whole thing. You can see it here. It seems to me that Obama is doing what he does very well, what all good politicians do: tailoring his words and tone to his audience, in this case, a conservative newspaper that wound up endorsing him.

This is the part of the quote that got the most attention: "I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing."

So while it's true he never said he "admired" Reagan, he certainly praised Reagan's campaign for its "optimism," "dynamism," "entrepreneurship" and "accountability." Even more interesting, to me, is something Obama said later in the interview that got almost no attention:

"I do think there's maybe a generational element to this, partly. In the sense that I didn't come of age in the battles of the sixties, I'm not as invested in them. So I think I talk differently about issues ... and values. And that's why I think we've been resonating with the American people ... What I'm saying is that I think the average Baby Boomer has moved beyond a lot of the arguments of the sixties, but our politicians haven't. It's all around culture wars ... or Vietnam."

Anyone who wants to understand why some Democrats have questions about Obama's politics should look closely at that quote. Let me state first: I'm only two and a half years older than Obama. I don't want to keep fighting the "battles of the sixties," either. But the fact is, to the extent that it seems sometimes like we have to -- over civil rights, women's rights, gay rights -- it's almost always because Republicans are fighting to block the gains of those groups, or to roll back already-won gains. If Obama wants Democrats to know he's not "as invested" in those battles as Hillary Clinton, that's worth knowing. I actually think Obama's gotten off easy, not having to explain what he meant by that.

The Clintons have been inaccurate when it comes to Obama's quote about Republicans; he called the GOP "the party of ideas"; he didn't say they had "good" or "better" ideas. On the other hand, the Obama campaign isn't being entirely fair in attacking Clinton's new South Carolina ad. An e-mail from Obama communications director Bill Burton announced today that "Clinton launches attack on issue she has been pilloried for in the media for being patently false." I was prepared to hear the ad say Obama admired Reagan or had claimed Republicans in the 90s had good ideas. But it didn't; this time Clinton stuck to the truth.

Here's what the ad says:

Voice-over: "Listen to Barack Obama last week talking about Republicans."

Barack Obama: "The Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10, 15 years."

Voice-over: "Really? Aren't those the ideas that got us into the economic mess we're in today? Ideas like special tax breaks for Wall Street. Running up a $9 trillion debt. Refusing to raise the minimum wage or deal with the housing crisis. Are those the ideas Barack Obama's talking about?"

Barack Obama: "The Republicans were the party of ideas."

Voice-over: Hillary Clinton thinks this election is about replacing disastrous Republican ideas with new ones, like jump-starting the economy. Putting an immediate freeze on foreclosures and mortgages. Cutting taxes for the middle class and creating millions of new jobs. With the economy in crisis, we need a president with the ideas, the solutions that get America working for all of us. Hillary Clinton. Solutions for America.

It's rough, but I don't think it's dishonest. What do you think?

By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections