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The Democrats' Reagan

By Bob Beckel

Question: Name the presidential candidate described below.

An unpopular incumbent president sits in the Oval Office. His party's brand is badly tarnished. The economy is in shambles, unemployment on the rise. The housing market is in crisis. Gasoline has become a major issue.

America is enmeshed in a protracted crisis in the Middle East with no end in sight. We are near war footing with Iran. The reputation of the United States is diminished world wide. In historically high numbers, voters believe the country is on the wrong track.

The opposition party has nominated a charismatic candidate for president whose oratorical skills are compared to JFK, perhaps better. He had been introduced to the majority of Americans by way of a spellbinding keynote speech at a previous national party convention.

He has a fervent core of supporters and has emerged as the leader of his party through an insurgency that challenged and ultimately defeated his party's establishment. He runs against Washington and the special interests that control the Capitol. His message is change and hope.

If ever the public demanded change in Washington, it is in this presidential year. It could not be a better political environment for the party out of power.

Yet with all the stars aligned perfectly for a party change in the White House, national polls show the opposition candidate barely ties, and often trails, his opponent.

There is little doubt about the voter's desire for change, but there is plenty of doubt about this candidate who pledges to deliver it. Who is the candidate?

Answer; A) Barack Obama B) Ronald Reagan C) Both

The correct answer is C.

Barack Obama's current political circumstance is eerily similar to that of Ronald Reagan in his 1980 campaign for president. Both Obama and Reagan, from the beginning of their insurgent campaigns, were viewed as transformative political figures. Both enjoyed passionate grassroots support.

Both men had defeated centrist establishment candidates for their party's nomination. Reagan defeated George H.W. Bush, who was viewed by the growing conservative base of the Republican Party as too moderate. Obama beat Hilary Clinton whose husband had been elected twice by moving away from his party's traditional progressive roots and running as a centrist, a path Clinton herself followed (at least at the beginning of her campaign).

In 1980 most conventional political observers failed to recognize the growing grassroots power of the rock solid conservative activists who propelled Reagan to his party's nomination. In the 2008 presidential campaign supporters of Hillary Clinton failed to recognize the growing assertiveness of the Democrats progressive base, especially over the Iraq war which she initially supported and Obama opposed.

The failures of the Bush Administration convinced many progressives that the conservative cycle, deep into its third decade, had run its course. These activists believed the country was ready to tack back toward more progressive and transparent government. Barack Obama recognized and embraced this growing progressive movement.

Obama's message that it was time to "turn the page" on politics as usual (a not very subtle reference to both the Bush and Clinton years) resonated with progressives. That message coupled with his message of post-partisan, anti-polarization politics, so attractive to independent voters, provided Obama with a core of progressive activists along with a solid base of black voters and young voters energized by his youth and oratorical gifts.

But insurgency campaigns by definition run counter to the established order. Even in years when voters clamor for change, insurgent candidates must prove that neither they nor the change they offer is perceived as too far from the mainstream. It is this potential fear that opponents of insurgent candidates seek to exploit.

For most of the general election in 1980 Democrats succeeded in raising doubts about Reagan's brand of conservatism. They charged that he was too far right, and questioned his past conservative associations with the John Birch Society which, like Reagan; had been strong supporters of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Democrats argued that Reagan's brand of virulent anti-Communism coupled with his lack of foreign-policy experience was a dangerous mixture for the man whose finger would be on the proverbial "button."

For most of the 1980 general election the attacks on Reagan raised enough doubt about him to neutralize the public's strong desire for change. I was managing Carter's campaign in Texas that fall, and even in that conservative bastion, Carter led Reagan in the polls until mid-October. Our strategy was simple: On a risk scale of 1 to 10 (one being no risk, 10 being far too risky) we had managed to keep Reagan in the 7 to 8 range. Then came the only Carter/Reagan debate and the flood gates opened.

On stage with the President of the United States, Reagan did not come across as a threatening mad bomber. He was collegial, surefooted, and calm. His performance shattered expectations that he was a risk, which allowed Reagan, at the end of the debate, to pivot to the state of the economy with his devastating question, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" Reagan was elected in a landslide and proceeded to transform politics in America well beyond his two terms.

The Republicans are employing the same "risk" strategy against Barack Obama in 2008. McCain and company have used Obama's willingness to meet with avowed enemies of the United States like Iran as a sign of naiveté and weakness. Republican operatives and their radio talk show allies have sought to tie Obama to the anti-American rants of his former pastor Jeremiah Wright and his neighbor William Ayers, a former '60s radical.

Republicans have even dragged Obama's wife Michelle into the fight. They cite her Princeton senior thesis, selected campaign comments, and Obama's failure to wear an American flag lapel pin as evidence of passive patriotism.

Democrats in 1980 charged that Reagan would rip apart the social safety net for the poor, while Republicans in 2008 accuse Obama of inciting class warfare and suggest as president he will undertake a classic liberal redistribution of wealth by increasing taxes on wealthy Americans and profitable US corporations.

It is incumbent on Obama to diffuse the "risk" issue. In some ways his will be an easier job than Reagan's. Reagan ran against an incumbent president, always a difficult race, while Obama faces a 71-year-old Senate veteran. (McCain turns 72 on Aug. 29.) Reagan faced a president preoccupied with 52 American hostages in Iran while Obama's opponent supports an unpopular war in Iraq that has already cost over 4000 American lives.

The "risk" factor for insurgents can best be addressed in direct candidate to candidate debates. Insurgents tend to have low expectations in these matchups, and hence a greater upside potential. Ronald Reagan had only one debate opportunity to counter his "risk" problem. Obama is likely to have a minimum of three encounters with John McCain and potentially several other town hall joint appearances.

John McCain will not be irrelevant in these face-offs, but only Barack Obama can confront the question of risk. It is an enviable position for Barack Obama Only he can win the race for the White House, and only he can lose it.

If Obama has proved one thing in his short political career, it is that he is far more likely to win than to lose.

Bob Beckel managed Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign. He is a senior political analyst for the Fox News Channel and a columnist for USA Today. Beckel is the co-author with Cal Thomas of the book "Common Ground."

Copyright 2008, Real Clear Politics

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