The Last 'Yes, We Can' Candidate

Ronald Reagan at the 1980 Republican convention.
Ronald Reagan at the 1980 Republican convention. (By Rusty Kennedy -- Associated Press)
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By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, February 29, 2008

Barack Obama's critics bear a remarkable resemblance to the liberals who labored mightily to dismiss Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Reagan's foes wrote him off as a right-wing former actor who amiably spouted conservative bromides and must have been engaged in some sort of Hollywood flimflam.

Like Reagan's enemies, Obama's opponents concede that he gives a great speech. Indeed, both Obama and Reagan came to wide attention because of a single oration that offered hope in the midst of a losing campaign -- Obama's 2004 keynote to the Democratic National Convention and Reagan's 1964 "A Time for Choosing" address delivered on behalf of Barry Goldwater. But surely speeches aren't enough, are they?

Yes, Obama gets his crowds swooning. So did Reagan. It's laughable to hear conservatives talk darkly about a "cult of personality" around Obama. The Reaganites, after all, have lobbied to name every airport, school, library, road, bridge, government building and lamppost after the Gipper. When it comes to personality cults, the right wing knows what it's talking about.

But don't worry, say Obama's adversaries, he'll collapse because voters won't trust him to handle foreign policy. He's too inexperienced and has these perilously idealistic ideas. Yes, and President Jimmy Carter's campaign in 1980 was absolutely convinced it could persuade the country that Reagan was a dangerous warmonger who could not be trusted to keep America safe.

In any event, claim the anti-Obama legions, voters will eventually be convinced that he is nothing but a big, bad liberal. He may make sweet bipartisan sounds, but the old attacks on left-wing ideology will work, as they always have.

The liberals who were so dismissive of Reagan similarly insisted that he represented the same "right-wing extremism" that voters had rejected in 1964 when they sent Goldwater to his landslide defeat.

Yet Reagan didn't play to type. He reached out warmly to Democrats, notably in his 1980 convention speech that was his single most effective political sally.

"Everywhere we have met thousands of Democrats, independents and Republicans from all economic conditions and walks of life bound together in that community of shared values of family, work, neighborhood, peace and freedom," Reagan declared. "They are concerned, yes, but they are not frightened. They are disturbed but not dismayed. They are the kind of men and women Tom Paine had in mind when he wrote -- during the darkest days of the American Revolution -- 'We have it in our power to begin the world over again.' "

You can almost hear the Republican crowd shouting, "Yes, we can!" Reagan offered, well, change we could believe in.

Still, Democrats kept telling themselves, right to November, that voters wouldn't fall for any of this. Charisma, eloquence, idealism and hope were no match for experience, realism, prudence and predictability.

The Reagan metaphor explains why Hillary Clinton was in trouble from the moment she failed to knock Obama out of the race in Iowa. During the past two months, Democrats in large numbers have reached the same conclusion that so many Republicans did in 1980: Now is the time to go for broke, to challenge not only the ruling party but also the governing ideas of the previous political era and the political coalition that allowed them to dominate public life.

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