Liberals are not uniquely "unreasonable"

A widely discussed critique of the left's attitude toward Obama forgets some important history

Published November 26, 2011 3:00PM (EST)

By now, you’re probably familiar with Jonathan Chait’s provocatively titled New York magazine story: “When Did Liberals Become So Unreasonable?” Chait’s answer is that they’ve pretty much always been unreasonable – that the same “unceasingly despairing” attitude the left has taken toward Barack Obama’s presidency emerges whenever a Democrat claims the White House.

Of course, Chait is overstating the current depths of liberal despair, given that the outspoken frustration of some left-of-center commentators hasn’t exactly trickled down to the liberal masses, and that overall support and enthusiasm for Obama has fallen more significantly among non-liberal Democrats than among liberals. Joan Walsh did a nice job earlier this week of pointing this out, and of addressing many of the specific points Chait made about Obama’s record.

But the bigger problem is that Chait seems to be misreading history in some important ways.

Take his claim that the historical pattern of despair he describes is a uniquely liberal tradition – that conservatives, because they have “higher levels of respect for and obedience to authority,” don’t exhibit the same level of disappointment with their leaders. This is hard to swallow if you lived through or have spent much time studying Ronald Reagan’s presidency, which featured the same loud and consistent cries of “Betrayal!” from conservative opinion-leaders that we’ve heard from liberals since 2009.

Chait seems to understand this on some level; he acknowledges that the Reagan of the modern conservative imagination is far different from the Reagan who ran the country in the 1980s – a president who “spent most of his administration raising taxes, signing arms-control treaties, and otherwise betraying right-wing dogma.” But what Chait doesn’t grapple with is the fact that conservative leaders of the Reagan-era were very much aware of and appalled by all of this – and didn’t hesitate to say so publicly.

The Reagan story is worth considering because he’s the closest mirror image to Obama among modern Republican presidents. Just like Obama, his party’s base was with him from the very beginning, embracing him as the true believer they’d long been waiting for. Conservatives in the 1980 general election didn’t just vote for Reagan because they wanted to get rid of Jimmy Carter; they also saw an opportunity to impose sweeping conservative change. Liberal voters had similar feelings about Obama in 2008.

Now let’s compare each president’s relationship with his party’s base. Obama, Chait claims, began losing the left a month before he took office, when he asked the socially conservative evangelical pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his swearing-in. But you can similarly argue that Reagan began losing the right within weeks of his 44-state landslide in November 1980, when he announced that Jim Baker – a moderate Republican and close friend of George H.W. Bush, who had run to Reagan’s left in the 1980 GOP primaries and belittled his supply-side blueprint as “voodoo economics” – would be his White House chief of staff.

The carping that Baker’s selection prompted set the tone for what was to come, with conservative leaders convinced for much of Reagan’s tenure that they were being sold out by the man in whom they’d invested so much hope. The conservative press wasn’t nearly as well-developed then as it is now – there was no Fox News, no Internet and no Rush Limbaugh – but right-wing organs like Human Events, Conservative Digest and the Evans and Novak syndicated column fed this siege mentality, especially in the early years of Reagan’s tenure. The main critique was identical to the one liberals now make about Obama: that President Reagan had proven to be the kind of compromise-happy incrementalist that candidate Reagan had disdained.

As the painful early ‘80s recession – the last time before the Obama administration that the unemployment rate climbed over 10 percent – dragged down Reagan’s job approval rating, conservative leaders convinced themselves that the Reagan presidency was failing because it had abandoned its ideological mission. In June 1982, for instance, a top Reagan donor and conservative Christian leader, Clymer Wright, convened a meeting of about two dozen “New Right” leaders in Texas. The agenda: figuring out how to convince Reagan to tune out Baker and all of the other non-true believer voices he’d installed in the White House. "We want to hold Ronald Reagan's feet to the fire Ronald Reagan lighted,” Josh Loftin, the Conservative Digest editor, told Newsweek.

Months later, after Republicans suffered through a miserable midterm election and with Reagan’s approval rating well under 40 percent, a band of conservatives led by Richard Viguerie and Howard Phillips called on Reagan not to seek reelection – and began plotting a potential primary challenge against him in case he did run.

"It's just not a very conservative administration," Viguerie declared. "It seems like every day they hit us with something that makes us mad. But we don't even bother getting mad anymore. We want to do something about it." In a February 1983 article titled “The New Right: Betrayed?” Newsweek provided this explanation for conservative despair:

What infuriates conservative leaders is how far they are from achieving their agenda even though a man they thought of as one of their own sits in the White House. They blame the pragmatic strategies of Reagan chief of staff James A. Baker III, and their list of complaints is lengthy: record budget deficits, adherence to Jimmy Carter's unratified SALT II policy and the premise that an agreement signed by the Soviets could become a cornerstone of future U.S. policy. The cabinet appointments of Dole and former Massachusetts Rep. Margaret Heckler were particularly irritating since both, though at least nominally opposed to abortion, are viewed by the right as aggressive feminists. New Right leaders acknowledge Reagan's State of the Union references to public-school prayer, tuition tax credits and a spending freeze -- but doubt his true intent or ability to follow through on those issues dear to their hearts. "That sounded good, but he offered no plan to win," says Viguerie.

All of this is a long way of saying that the right can be as “unreasonable” in judging a supposedly conservative president as the left can be in judging a supposedly liberal one.

Chait claims that conservative frustration is much milder than liberal frustration. But how do you quantify this? After all, if you consider the first two-and-a-half years of their presidencies, Reagan’s job approval rating among Republicans was slightly lower than Obama’s was among Democrats. It was only when the economy began rapidly expanding in the middle of 1983 that Reagan’s standing – with Republicans and with all voters – began climbing and the press stopped paying so much attention to the idea of a conservative revolt. Even then, conservative leaders remained on guard; if you need a refresher, just look at news stories from December 1987, when Reagan was declared excommunicated from the conservative movement by multiple New Right leaders for his advocacy of the INF treaty with the Soviets.

It’s hard to believe the same basic story wouldn’t play out with Obama if the economy were to come roaring back to life now – an overall surge in popularity, the restoration of approval ratings over 90 percent among Democrats, and a precipitous decline in coverage of liberal disgruntlement, even with some liberal activists and commentators still insisting he’d betrayed the cause.

The other issue with Chait’s history lesson is that it fails to distinguish between the concept of a liberal president and a Democratic president. This sets up something of a straw man, allowing Chait to point to one example after another of liberals rejoicing upon the election of a new Democratic president only to hold that president to unreasonable standards. What Chait doesn’t acknowledge is that of the three Democratic presidents elected since 1976, only one – Obama – can accurately be described as the choice of his party’s base. The other two, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, were viewed with suspicion by liberals from the earliest days of their campaigns, and for good reason.

Take Carter, whose emergence as the Democratic nominee in 1976 was essentially a fluke, a product of his campaign’s ability to grasp the significance of the party’s radically expanded primary and caucus calendar before anyone else. Thus was Carter, then a conservative Southern Democrat who had poor relations with organized labor and other traditional liberal constituencies, able to spend the winter and spring of ’76 racking up delegates and building momentum while the party establishment planned for a brokered convention that never came to pass. (It also helped Carter that Ted Kennedy, who could easily have unified the liberal establishment, declined to run and that multiple liberals -- Mo Udall, Fred Harris, Frank Church, Jerry Brown and Hubert Humphrey -- vied to be the anti-Carter.)

So while most liberals were happy enough with Carter’s fall victory over Gerald Ford and hopeful that liberal voices like Vice President Walter Mondale would prevail in his administration, they were also understandably apprehensive. And when President Carter proved hostile to labor and to the traditional Democratic establishment, liberals understandably revolted, ultimately lining up with Ted Kennedy in his 1980 primary challenge. This seems more a case of a party base doing its job – not a party base being unreasonable.

The story is the same for Clinton. Again, liberals were quite happy when he defeated George H.W. Bush in 1992 and ended 12 years of Republican rule. And they were hopeful too. But that optimism was mixed with trepidation, because he had hardly been their first choice for the Democratic nomination.

The context here is worth remembering. Clinton entered the ’92 race as the anti-liberal candidate, a moderate Southerner and a product of the Democratic Leadership Council, which had been created to push the party away from Mondale/Dukakis-style liberalism. The initial plan was for Clinton to win the nomination by running to the right, under the assumption that his chief rival would be either New York Gov. Mario Cuomo or (if Cuomo didn’t run) Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, both of whom embodied the Mondale/Dukakis tradition.

The twist is that Cuomo begged off and Harkin failed to ignite, allowing Paul Tsongas, of all people, to emerge as Clinton’s chief foe. Amazingly, Tsongas was even farther to the right than Clinton – a born-again deficit hawk who lectured about the virtues of capitalism and promised to be Wall Street’s best friend as president. When Tsongas won the New Hampshire primary, Clinton improvised and sold himself as the last best hope of the liberal coalition, scaring unions, senior citizens, Jews and minorities away from Tsongas with a slick and effective negative campaign that pushed Tsongas to the sidelines by the middle of March. Thus can it be said that Clinton ran as the liberal candidate for several weeks in 1992 – and that’s about it.

As soon as the nomination was his, Clinton junked the liberalism and went back to showing Middle America that he wasn’t another Mondale. His famous “Sister Souljah” moment – when Clinton intentionally provoked liberal ire by calling out a black rapper while addressing Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition – well reflected his post-Tsongas posturing

Against this backdrop, the liberal frustration with President Clinton that Chait documents doesn’t seem quite so unreasonable. For instance, maybe you think Clinton was right in enacting welfare reform in 1996; maybe you don’t. Either way, it’s hard to blame any liberal who watched Clinton sign the bill, grew angry, and exclaimed, “This never would have happened under President Cuomo.”

There’s plenty of good history in Chait’s piece, and his point about how modern assessments of presidents often distort their actual records is well-taken. Nor would I contest his belief that there are some real difference in how conservatives and liberals think about their leaders; reverence for a strong, singular executive does seem much more pronounced on the right. It’s also true that Republican voters remained extremely loyal to George W. Bush throughout his entire presidency, even when his overall numbers cratered. (Of course, this may have been a product of 9/11 and his self-styled image as a wartime president, which created intraparty cohesion that might otherwise not have existed.)

Overall, though, modern political history just isn’t as neat and tidy as Chait suggests. He’s far too quick to treat any liberal criticism of any Democratic president as “unreasonable” and far too hesitant to acknowledge that conservatives can – and have been – just as “unreasonable.” In other words, what he’s documented isn’t so much a phenomenon of the left; it’s a phenomenon of all true believers.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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