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Holmes: Reagan and the Democrats

Rick Holmes

Ronald Reagan has haunted the Republican presidential campaign from the beginning, as every candidate invoked their party's last heroic figure. Now he's haunting the Democrats as well.

Now that Hillary Clinton and her friends have had almost a week to mischaracterize it, few voters know what Barack Obama actually said in Reno about Reagan. Here's the quote:

"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."

As Tom Driscoll pointed out in our "Holmes & Co." blog, coverage of the interview omitted what Obama said a few minutes later:

"I think Kennedy, 20 years earlier, moved the country in a fundamentally different direction. So I think a lot of it has to do with the times. I think we are in one of those fundamentally different times right now where people think that things, the way they are going, just aren't working."

It's easy to see why Hillary Clinton and John Edwards have jumped on Obama's comments. They are playing to a Democratic base that never liked Reagan. A lot of liberals, especially, have a hard time separating the substance of Reagan's policies from his obvious political skills. It's like Red Sox fans, blinded by Yankee pinstripes, refusing to admit that Alex Rodriguez can hit.

Above and beyond his team uniform, Reagan knew something about the game of politics. The proof is in the numbers. He won a lot of votes and he used that mandate to change the country's direction.

Which is what Obama said. Obama wasn't talking about Reagan's tax policies or Iran-Contra. He was talking about presidential leadership.

But what is he saying about leadership? It's partly a right-leader-for-the-historical-moment argument, which isn't especially original. Obama seems in the quote to put more emphasis on the moment than the leader.

What's important is that he sees this moment as an opportunity to make fundamental change. That means he'll go in there trying to do big things. In contrast, Hillary stands for a return to the policy incrementalism and partisanship of the '90s. I'm not sure she believes the country is capable of being put on a new trajectory, nor does she have a vision of what an alternative trajectory would be.

In what is shaping up as a good year for Democrats, voters need to ask what the candidates would do with the prize if they win it. Clinton's been playing defense for so long in Washington, it's hard to imagine her on offense. She can manage the stuff that lands in her in-box, but can she set a bold, new direction?

Rhetorically, Obama is a "new directions" candidate. He's right when he says that over the last 10 to 15 years, the Republicans have been the party of ideas - and no, he didn't say they were good ideas.

Obama's problem is he hasn't put forward ideas that match his rhetoric. His policy positions are nearly indistinguishable from those of the other candidates. "Hope" and "change" don't define a new trajectory for the nation.

The Republican candidates constantly invoke Reagan because they've run out of ideas. If the Democrats are to become the "party of ideas," they had better put some forward.

Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the MetroWest Daily News, can be reached at He blogs at Holmes & Co.: