There You Go Again

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

THE DEMOCRATIC presidential candidates have shifted their squabbling from Martin Luther King Jr. to Ronald Reagan. The new debate -- which may be a polite description of the current bickering -- is a mirror image of the previous one. For imagined slights by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and her allies to the achievements of King, substitute imagined praise by Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) for the policies of Mr. Reagan and the Republican Party. Ms. Clinton and company, most notably former president Bill Clinton, have wrenched Mr. Obama's remarks out of context as least as much as the Obama campaign did her statements about King.

The smackdown stems from the Illinois senator's comments to the Reno Gazette-Journal. "Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not," Mr. Obama said. "He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. He tapped into what people were already feeling, which is, we want clarity, we want optimism, we want, you know, a return to that sense of dynamism and, you know, entrepreneurship that had been missing."

Obama also had this to say about the GOP: "The Republican approach has played itself out. I think it's fair to say that the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10, 15 years, in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom. Now, you've heard it all before. You look at the economic policies when they're being debated among the presidential candidates, it's all tax cuts. Well, we know, we've done that; we've tried it. That's not really going to solve our energy problems, for example."

The first issue is whether these statements are shameful apostasy or, as we see it, accurate analysis. Agree with his policies or not, Mr. Reagan's historical importance and effectiveness in office are hard to dispute -- in fact, Hillary Clinton doesn't disagree. Mr. Reagan, she told Tom Brokaw for his new book, "Boom!," "played the balance and the music beautifully." Mr. Clinton deserves more credit for reorienting the thinking of the Democratic Party than Mr. Obama gave him, and perhaps Mr. Obama was playing up his centrist credentials to a conservative editorial board, but his overall assessment was accurate.

The second matter is the Clinton campaign's repeated distortion of Mr. Obama's remarks. In the debate, Ms. Clinton accused Mr. Obama of saying "that he really liked the ideas of the Republicans over the last 10 to 15 years," adding, "Now, I personally think they had ideas, but they were bad ideas. . . . They were ideas like privatizing Social Security, like moving back from a balanced budget and a surplus to deficit and debt." In fact, there is nothing in the record that suggests that Mr. Obama supports any of those positions. As Mr. Obama explained, "What I said had nothing to do with their policies . . . what I did say is that we have to be thinking in the same transformative way about our Democratic agenda."

That didn't stop the Clinton campaign, which went up with a new radio ad yesterday quoting Mr. Obama out of context. "Aren't those the ideas that got us into the economic mess we're in today? Ideas like special tax breaks for Wall Street. Running up a $9 trillion debt. Refusing to raise the minimum wage or deal with the housing crisis. Are those the ideas Barack Obama's talking about?" Ms. Clinton knows they're not. In fact, on policy grounds, the two candidates are extremely close, which makes the nomination fight in part about character and judgment. This episode does not speak well for Ms. Clinton's.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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