Barack Obama is finally coming into focus.
For a while now, the Obamaphiles have insisted that their candidate represents a profound break with the past. No more culture wars. No more “re-litigating the 1960s,” in Obama’s own words.
But what about re-litigating the 1980s?
There’s always been a certain cultural lag time to Barack and Michelle Obama, a kitschiness that’s hard to pinpoint. But I think I’ve got it: They’re self-hating yuppies straight out of the 1980s, which were to the Obamas what the 1960s were to the Clintons.
For those too young to remember, “yuppie” was shorthand for young urban professionals – think Michael J. Fox as Alex P. Keaton in the TV series “Family Ties” – who allegedly represented the collapse of ’60s values and the triumph of ’80s greed. Yuppies sold their souls for a BMW and a condo.
Ironically, the biggest complaints about yuppie materialism came from self-loathing liberal yuppies – like the Obamas.
The Obamas still seem stuck in that time warp, clinging to ’80s-style resentments and political assumptions. Michelle Obama is never so eloquent as when she’s complaining about the burden of student loans for her two Ivy League degrees and covering the high cost of summer camp and piano lessons for her kids on her family’s half-million-dollars-a-year income.
“Don’t go into corporate America,” she exhorted low-income working mothers in Ohio in February, even though she is a highly compensated hospital executive. She admits to being consumed with “a constant sense of guilt” over having to balance work, politics, and family. “It’s guilt, feeling guilty all the time.”
It’s telling that for the Clintons, JFK defined politics, but for Obama, Ronald Reagan is the role model. Last year, Obama admitted to admiring the Gipper’s “transformative” leadership (though not his policies). Indeed, not only did Reagan restore confidence in the nation while reducing confidence in government, he put a stake in the heart of the “Vietnam syndrome” and the blame-America-first ethos of the Democratic Party. The Reagan Revolution moved the country durably to the right – so much so that even Democrats saw the writing on the wall. Obama wants to erase that writing.
As countless commentators have chronicled, Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory stemmed from the fact that he was a “different kind of Democrat” – that is, one who understood the lessons of Reaganism, or at least claimed to, and rejected the “brain-dead policies” of the old Democratic Party. He was a pro-death-penalty free-trader who oversaw the triumph of the Reaganite welfare reform.
But it’s as if Obama spent the 1990s in some kind of Democratic Brigadoon and didn’t keep up with his party, let alone the nation. Obama, the man of the future, in fact stands athwart that history, yelling “Stop!”
This is the best way to understand his recent comments at a San Francisco fundraiser as he explained his challenge of connecting with rural and small-town voters.
“You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania,” he said, “and … the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. … It’s not surprising, then, that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
When his comments sparked a controversy, he dismissed it as a “little typical sort of political flare-up because I said something that everybody knows is true.”
But everybody doesn’t know anything of the sort. Not in this decade anyway. Obama’s merely recycling the liberal cliches of the ’80s, namely that Pennsylvania’s “bitter” voters have been duped by “wedge issues” like guns, religion, and racial resentment. New Democrats recognized that wedge issues are legitimate concerns. Old Democrats remain in denial.
“My rival in this race,” he said in 2007, “is not other candidates, it’s cynicism.” And, of course, Obama is against “division.” This treacle was once dismissed as naive idealism, a.k.a. “the politics of hope.” But the code has been broken. His real opponent is the “division” that made Reagan, the Bushes and the Clintons possible and brought politics to the center, where the country was all along.
Slate columnist Mickey Kaus has been waiting for Obama to “pivot” to the center as Clinton did in 1992. But it may be that America’s most reliably liberal senator doesn’t think he has to. He isn’t a unifier. He’s a counter-revolutionary. And waiting for him to pivot is like waiting for Godot.
– Jonah Goldberg is the author of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.
(C) 2008 Tribune Media Services, Inc.