(cross-posted at the Smirking Chimp)
It seems that Barack Obama is drawing heat from the right and the left because he's 'inspirational'. John McCain says about Obama's message, "It's no more than an eloquent, but empty call for change." Hillary Clinton touts her own experience and toughness as superior to Barack Obama's call for unity and optimism.
The point seems to be that Obama's message of hope and inspiration that has galvanized so many Americans (even a few Republicans, or 'Obamicans' as they're now known) is a bunch of hogwash, and that Obama's appeal is superficial and insubstantive. 'Hope'? That's nothing to base a presidential campaign on!
While the Republicans are busy vilifying Obama for his inspirational speeches and call him an 'empty suit' and a perpetrator of the 'Cult of Personality', they seem to have forgotten about the Ultimate Republican Hero, whom the Repub candidates have practically come to blows over as they each claim to be the 'absolutely most Reagan-y'. John McCain called himself a 'Foot-soldier in the Reagan Revolution'. The basis of Ronald Reagan's appeal (to both Republicans and the 'Reagan Democrats') was that, instead of endlessly droning on about the problems we faced as a nation and the unpleasant medicine we'd have to swallow if we wanted things to get better like that grumpy old Jimmy Carter did (gosh, who wants to vote for someone who tells you things you don't want to hear? Conserving energy? Turning down our thermostats? Yuck!), Reagan burst forth like sunshine from behind a cloud and pooh-poohed away all those worries with a dismissive wave of his hand as he told Americans not to believe their lying eyes or their dwindling bankbooks, but to cheer up; because we were the Best Nation Ever™, and to say otherwise was tantamount to treason.
And who didn't want to believe him? Americans were tired of sacrifice and penny-pinching, inflation and gas lines, hostages and humiliation. So when Reagan promised that he was going to wipe the slate clean and make Americans proud once more, he held out something that could not be quantified or qualified - he held out hope. He told Americans what they wanted to hear, not what they needed to hear, and his 'feel-good' rhetoric catapulted him into the White House. His emphasis on supply-side economics (or 'voodoo economics' as his future VP Bush Senior called it during the race for the nomination), the idea that 'deficits don't matter' and complete rollback of the New Deal went unchallenged in the desire to put the 'bad stuff' behind us.
Reagan, however, really was a 'tabula rasa' - an actor who could be counted on to do his corporate masters' bidding with zeal and true belief, which was how he got Americans to trust him. The public can sniff out inauthenticity, and, as an actor, he immersed himself in the biggest role of his career until he really did believe. A former Democrat, former New Deal supporter, former labor union president (Screen Actors Guild), Reagan’s years with GE as not only a television host but a traveling ‘good-will ambassador’ for GE, changed his viewpoint as he spent the bulk of his time with corporate and defense contractor honchos and became convinced that government regulation was interfering with the free market. He was passionate, as are most born-agains, and the sincerity of his convictions resonated with the electorate, winning him a whole new constituency of ‘Reagan Democrats’. Believing as he did that government was the problem, not the solution, he cut off funding for arts and education, busted unions (beginning with the air traffic controllers strike, which caused a sharp upturn in airplane accidents), and slashed programs to assist mothers, children, and minorities, while pouring money into defense and running up huge deficits.
Yes, old Saint Ronnie was quite the salesman, and his customers just couldn't get enough of the snake-oil. Reagan was groomed and prepped by the political star-makers of the right to be the popular face of their movement, and in that sense he was a brilliant success. He got a laugh when he said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'” Actually, to me the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “An actor with Alzheimer’s was once our Nation’s President”. But I digress. His witty little quips and avuncular folksiness obscured the fact that he was launching a war against the middle class and the poor, and putting forth the incredible idea that 'Government is the enemy and Big Business is your friend."
Reagan was, indeed, the triumph of 'style over substance', and it was the force of his personality that earned him the label "The Great Communicator". But he has been ensconced in conseravtive minds as the greatest president ever, while ostensibly 'running the country' in the throes of Alzheimer's.
Barack Obama is far more qualified to be President than Reagan ever was. Like Schwarzenegger after him, Reagan was an actor who had been recruited by big money interests to lend their on-screen persona to the agenda of the big businesses who, for obvious reasons, could not be elected on their own recognizance. Obama has the drive and the charisma, but he also has the goods. He's his own man, for whatever that's worth.
This may be what drives the Repubs crazy. The purpose of an empty suit is for it to be worn by someone else. They have deified Reagan for the same thing that they are crucifying Obama for - for inspiring, uplifting, instilling hope in the hopeless. But when you compare the two, there's a difference. Reagan's feel-good, yay-America, look-at-the-pretty-birdie-over-there rhetorical sleight-of-hand was meant to distract Americans from reality while the real operatives did their work behind the scenes. Obama is a gifted, passionate and persuasive speaker who has touched a nerve in America. But he has also spent his lifetime involved in public service. He is highly educated and skilled. Whatever else he may be, he is not a mouthpiece for those who would rather stay in the shadows and pull strings from behind the curtains.
I am not saying this, by the way, as someone who is particularly under the sway of Obama's charisma. He was not my first choice Democrat, or my second. I think he is a good, qualified candidate whom I will support if he becomes the Democratic nominee. But I do not discount the power of the Obama phenomenon, and anything that motivates young people to get excited about a candidate and get involved in the electoral process is something worth paying attention to. The biggest problem I think we face as progressives is apathy, and Obama is shaking people up in a way that hasn't been seen in a generation. Hopelessness breeds apathy and disengagement, and to inspire hope and energy and involvement in people who have been on the sidelines politically is a gift, not just to Obama's campaign, but to the whole (small 'd') democratic process. We all owe Obama a 'thank you' for that.
Republicans like McCain who worship Reagan for his 'hopeful, uplifting' optimism are the same ones who sneer at Obama's message. The self-described 'foot-soldier of the Reagan Revolution' now says, “to encourage a country with only rhetoric rather than sound and proven ideas that trust in the strength and courage of free people is not a promise of hope. It is a platitude.”
Yeah - a platitude like "Morning in America".
I guess that 'inspiration' is only useful to Republicans when it is a smokescreen instead of a searchlight.