US – Election 2012 – Are Romney and Ryan Just Taft Warmed Over? – Yes, But Also Reagan – 14 August 2012

http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/la-na-tt-days-of-taft-20120813,0,3544670.story

I agree with this article in its conclusions, but must confess to having done a couple spit takes along the way with respect to the argument provided to reach those conclusions.

It has been clear for some time that the Republican vision is now nothing less than the erasing of any remnants of the New Deal and Great Society programs, and that the significance of the American election of 2012 is that it is a chance for those of us who believe in the egalitarianism underlying those programs to defend our vision, which couldn’t be more different than theirs. That is the sense of this article, that we have a choice between going (at least a little) forward with Obama and going _way_ backward with Romney.

Unfortunately, though, we are presented in this article with a history of the Republican Party’s influence in American politics that is a bit selective, possibly to avoid treading on the toes of Americans who cherish their personal mythologies as much as the truth. When I saw, for example, that the author of this article really was referring to Ronald Reagan as someone representative of a “compromising conservatism”, I had to go get a washcloth to clean my drink off the side of the wall. There was very little compromise involved in the Reagan legacy. It was really the beginning of a reactionary trend in American politics, and Romney and Ryan represent the continuing power of the Reagan narrative.

Presumably we are being presented with this account instead because Reagan was then, and remains, a popular figure to most Americans. People grasp that Romney and Ryan are bad news in a way they did not, and still do not, about Reagan. Perhaps it is impolitic of me to note the difference here because it might goad unreflective Americans into backing Romney-Ryan out of misguided respect for the Gipper, or something like that. But I think we will not be rid of the elitist politics of Romney and Ryan until Americans – finally – face up to the fact that that style of politics was born with Reagan and owes everything to Reagan.

Once it’s clear that this article glosses over Reagan because he was popular, you immediately notice why the article focuses on the defeat of the Republican president William Howard Taft in the 1912 election, where he had his posterior handed to him by both the Democrat Woodrow Wilson _and_ the Progressive Theodore Roosevelt. Granted, this election may have been selected for its symmetry given that it is now exactly 100 years later. But the last pre-New Deal Republican presidencies were those of the 1920s presidents Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, and the Romney-Ryan view of “rugged individualism” trumping social insurance certainly owes as much to the 1920s presidents as it does to Taft.

The difference, of course, is that Americans signed on en masse to the Republican policies of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover. We don’t like to remember that. We like to think that Americans were always against the kind of selfish and shortsighted policies that led to the Great Depression, and were always predisposed well to the inclusive and comprehensive policies that followed it. We weren’t. In the 1920s, selfishness and shortsightedness were wildly popular. Harding, Coolidge and Hoover were the Reagans of their day.

I get that the point of this is to paint Romney and Ryan as extreme, and since I agree that they are, I can nod and smile to some extent about this. But ultimately, I think it’s self-defeating to present Romney and Ryan as a deviation from the norm of Republican politics. They are not. They are the culmination of that reactionary norm. It started with Reagan.

I don’t mean to present the Democrats as free of any culpability here. The Clinton presidency, in particular, did much to entrench the values of the post-Reagan reactionary norm, and little if anything to resist it. Indeed, Obama, even while credibly fighting that norm on some fronts, perhaps concedes too much to it on others.

But I’m sorry, folks, to utterly absolve popular past Republicans of their obvious contributions to today’s extremist Republican Party philosophy both clearly crosses the line with respect to reasoned debate and demonstrates a certain “truthiness” approach to history. We should know better, whatever it may be convenient for us to believe.

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