Down the Memory Hole?

However much conviction one brings to the task, it is hard to write with much authority about the issues in the November election in the US until the nominee of the Democratic Party finally emerges. The policy differences between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are not so great. It is their interpretations of recent American history that couldn’t be more dissimilar. And that’s what makes it fun to read The New York Times op-ed page these days.


The Times’ editorial page itself has been on low-beam ever since it made an oddly unenthusiastic endorsement of Sen. Hillary Clinton in January. The op-ed page, on the other hand, has crackled with the kind of high-voltage intensity that characterized the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal in the 1970s and 1980s.


Last week columnist Paul Krugman rapped Sen. Hillary Clinton for endorsing the “bad idea” of a gas tax holiday. But, he continued, Sen. Barack Obama was doing “much more harm to the Democratic cause,” by giving Republicans “credit for good ideas they never had.” (Obama had told Fox News interviewer Chris Wallace “Well, I think there are a whole host of areas where Republicans in some cases may have a better idea.”  Like what? He mentioned cap-and-trade regulation of pollution emissions, charter schools and merit pay for teachers, before the conversation moved on.)


The same day columnist David Brooks surfaced Clinton’s remarks summoning up Holocaust associations while discussing free trade: (“They came for the steel companies and nobody said anything.  They came for the auto companies and nobody said anything. They came for the office companies, people who did white collar service jobs, and nobody said anything. And they came for the professional jobs that could be outsourced and nobody said anything.”)


The day before, columnist Thomas Friedman had cheered Obama for his opposition to the gas tax holiday, while chiding Clinton and Sen. John McCain for their support. (Mainly he excoriated President Bush for doing nothing to head off the looming expiration of investment tax credits for wind and solar energy production.) And so it has gone since the autumn, with columnist Maureen Dowd enjoying a remarkable second wind as an interpreter of presidential and would-be presidential motives.


What was startling about the exchange of views last week was Krugman’s characterization of the history of the last thirty years. It could be said that he was only representing the Clintons’ views of their place in history, but whatever the case, it is an attempted make-over of almost Orwellian proportions.


The most recent chapter in this argument goes back to January, when Obama told an interviewer, “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…. [H]e 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.”


Among the incipient ideas gradually fashioned into platform planks by the Republican Party in those years were deregulation; disinflation; corporate restructuring; tax simplification; trade liberalization; enthusiasm for entrepreneurship; and more assertive global anticommunism.  Taken altogether, they can be described as a revival of the traditional American enthusiasm for markets and money.


It is true that many of the measures taken in those years overshot or fell short. “Supply-side” income tax cuts failed to produce the desired results; but the 1986 tax simplification act was an (underappreciated) legislative landmark. The Iran-Contra affair tested (and probably exceeded) the limits of Presidential authority; but the response to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was deft. Ronald Reagan’s commitment to preserve Social Security was abandoned by George W. Bush.


It is true, too, that that Democrats were in at the beginning of many of these initiatives: Sen. Edward M. Kennedy on deregulation, Sen. Bill Bradley on tax-cutting, Sen. Tim Wirth on environmental regulation. Paul Volcker, the hero of the battle against inflation, was a Democrat; and there were few stronger anticommunists in his day than Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson. Jimmy Carter himself rode into the White House on a promise to rein in expansive government with a tactic he called “zero-base budgeting.”


And Bill Clinton’s presidency was for the most part run on middle-of-the-road reconciliation principles, with Lloyd Bentsen and Robert Rubin at the Treasury Department and Alan Greenspan (a Reagan appointee) at the Federal Reserve Board.


Does Krugman think it was a mass hallucination that for more than a quarter of a century the Republican Party was identified, even by many Democrats, as “the party of ideas”?


Of course nobody calls it that any more. Clearly the Republican mandate has run out.  The problems facing the US now require new policies for energy, climate, health care, Social Security – not to mention ending an ill-considered and disastrous war in Iraq and restoring America’s reputation for observing a decent respect for the opinions of mankind. The task of rebuilding the sense of everyday fair play will come later.


This, then, is what the Democratic primaries are about: a choice between Hillary Clinton, mired in the partisan rancor of the ’90s, or Obama, who is seeking to move beyond the recent past by making common cause with independents and Republicans who are worried about the future of their country.


Granted that the Clintons often were the victims of unprincipled attacks. Granted, too, that a future with Barack Obama is a gamble.


But there is no point in continuing to try to deny the Republicans credit for their “Reagan revolution.” The best reason to expect that Democratic Party elders will award the nomination to Obama is that they recognize that the Clintons’ attempt to dwell on the past would gravely threaten their future. The next phase in the cycle of American history already has begun.