If you glance up at the top of the page you’ll see the masthead photo is, of course, a sunset. But it’s not just any sunset, it’s the sunset on the day of Ronald Reagan’s funeral – June 11, 2004 – and you’re looking out across the hills at Simi Valley far in the distance, where the final Reagan funeral, the private one, is wrapping up, at about the moment Ronald Reagan is being lowered into his grave. The view is from Mulholland Drive, high above Hollywood, and the masthead photograph is there as a marker. Barry Goldwater may have invented modern bloodthirsty angry conservatism, but Goldwater got blown out in the 1964 presidential election. The nation seemed to have decided he was quite mad. But Ronald Reagan gave modern conservatism a sunny smile, even if many of his notions, if you thought about them for even a moment, were as mean and brutal as anything Goldwater had said. But Reagan talked about Morning in America and the Shining City on the Hill and that made whatever else he said sound kind of hopeful. Hollywood had trained him well. And thus he succeeded where Goldwater failed, and then became the touchstone for every conservative since. Apotheosis is the word. He was their savior, their redeemer.
And that’s how all modern conservatives talk about Reagan now. He made them all possible. He showed them how it’s done, with a self-deprecating smile, before the twist of the knife. And that means anyone who has a bone to pick with the positions that any current conservative espouses is not only arguing with Romney or Perry or Bachmann or Limbaugh or any member of the Bush family, they find themselves arguing with the ghost of Ronald Reagan. That’s why Ronald Reagan hovers over the page here.
And of course, on Wednesday, September 7, this year, the Republicans presidential hopefuls had a major debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library out in Simi Valley, near his grave, with his frail widow, Nancy, in the front row. The evening was full of ghosts. Ibsen would understand. Or maybe it was the Night of the Living Dead.
This debate was produced and broadcast by MSNBC, with Politico, and they offer the best summary:
Quick to tangle, Republican presidential rivals Rick Perry and Mitt Romney sparred vigorously over job creation and Social Security Wednesday night in a feisty campaign debate that marked a contentious new turn in the race to pick a 2012 challenger to President Barack Obama.
Far more than in earlier GOP debates this summer, the candidates mixed it up in their first faceoff since Perry entered the race and almost instantly overtook Romney as front-runner in opinion polls. Those two – as well as other contenders on stage – sniped at one another, contradicted allegations and interrupted media questioners to demand opportunities to take each other on.
“Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt,” Perry jabbed in the debate’s opening moments, referring to one of Romney’s Democratic predecessors as governor of Massachusetts.
“As a matter of fact, George Bush and his predecessors created jobs at a faster rate than you did,” Romney shot back at Perry, the 10-year incumbent Texas governor.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman sided with Perry when he turned to Romney and said, “47th just isn’t going to cut it, my friend,” a reference to the rank Massachusetts had among the 50 states in creating jobs during Romney’s term. But he also sought to rebut Perry’s claim to be chief executive of the country’s top job-producing state. “I hate to rain on the parade of the great Lone Star State governor, but as governor of Utah, we were the No. 1 job creator during my years in service,” Huntsman said.
Okay, that wasn’t very exciting, but this was:
Social Security produced more sparks, when Perry said the program was a “Ponzi scheme” and added it was a lie to tell young workers they will ever receive the benefits they have been promised.
Romney quickly referred to Perry’s book, “Fed Up,” in which the Texas governor said that by any measure the program was a failure. Perry also said states should be able to opt out of the program,’ Romney added.
Perry was unrepentant – “You cannot keep the status quo in place and call it anything other than a Ponzi scheme,” he said.
Romney defended Social Security? It seems he did. And yes, Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum were there too, saying things, but no one was listening to them. And as for the other major points, TPM Live Wire covered some of those:
Rick Perry stood by his opposition to climate change science, and to controls on carbon emissions.
“The science is not settled on this,” said Perry. “The idea that we would put Americans’ economy in jeopardy based on a scientific theory that’s not settled yet, to me is nonsense.”
Perry also said that even if many scientists agree on a theory, this does not necessarily make it true.
“Galileo was outvoted for a spell,” said Perry, referring to the famous astronomer who was persecuted in the early 1600s for insisting that the Earth revolved around the Sun.
Yeah, well – whatever – and there was this:
Perhaps smarting from the moment in the last debate when he raised his hand with all the other candidates to take a pledge that he would raise no taxes, Jon Huntsman backed away this time. He told the debate moderators that pledges “diminish the political discourse” and he would take no more of them. “I have a pledge to my wife, and I have a pledge to my country,” he said. And that’s that.
Huntsman is still after the “sane” voter, which seems kind of odd. And Kevin Drum had this reaction:
I just don’t have anything to say after that debate. Was it just my mood, or was the crazy really amped up to 11 this time around? I could barely pay attention to most of the raving coming from my TV.
I guess Perry is naturally the big news. My take is, I suspect, the conventional one: he didn’t do so well. He didn’t hurt himself really badly or anything, but he stumbled a lot. I mean, Social Security just isn’t a Ponzi scheme. Period. Taxpayers pay taxes, and those taxes get sent to retirees. End of story. It’s pretty much the same way we fund the Pentagon, the courts, the FBI, and everything else. Taxes come in, benefits go out. It’ll keep working forever with only minor tweaks.
On climate change he was weirdly hesitant. I mean, he must have known this was coming, right? But he couldn’t get a grip on himself and give a coherent answer. He just repeated over and over that lots of scientists weren’t sure about global warming, which is just flatly wrong, and then flailed around a bit on Galileo – which didn’t exactly illustrate his case the way he thought it did – before shifting into some completely irrelevant story about how Texas reduced air pollution. “That’s the way you need to do it, not by some scientist somewhere saying, ‘Here is what we think is happening out there.'” WTF?
Other than that, Perry just seemed generally unprepared and unwilling to really engage the issues. I guess now we know why he’s been afraid to give any interviews since he announced his candidacy. He’s afraid he’ll look like a kid who got called in class after failing to study the night before. He needs to raise his game.
Drum does note that David Frum said Perry seemed “nervous and irritable” and Will Wilkinson said “Perry came off halting, slightly confused, and peevish.” And Drum agrees:
I’m a little surprised that so many people thought Perry showed off his alpha male qualities tonight. Sure, he was generally aggressive and refused to back down from anything he’d said before, but his general demeanor seemed a little twitchy and high-strung to me. But then, I’m not exactly the target audience here.
No, the target audience was onto something else:
The crowd in Simi Valley is a blood-thirsty one: the biggest applause line of the night at the debate went to Rick Perry’s full-throated defense of his state’s standing as the most executingest of them all. While Perry has been governor, 234 people that have been executed by the state of Texas.
The crowd loved that statistic.
Perry had no apologies for the number, and if anything seemed proud of it. Asked by moderator Brian Williams why the number got so much applause, Perry said this: “I think Americans understand justice.”
Now THAT is alpha-male! But see E. D. Kain:
When Perry is asked about the two-hundred and thirty some people he’s executed on death row during his governorship, the audience bursts into applause. Torture, war, and death, and this is the “pro-life” party. I submit to you that this moment is perhaps the most telling since George W. Bush left office; that the modern Republican Party is not only intellectually bankrupt, but morally bankrupt as well.
And Andrew Sullivan puts it this way:
A spontaneous round of applause for executing people! And Perry shows no remorse, not even a tiny smidgen of reflection, especially when we know for certain that he signed the death warrant for an innocent man. Here’s why I find it impossible to be a Republican: any crowd that instantly cheers the execution of 234 individuals is a crowd I want to flee, not join. This is the crowd that believes in torture and executions. Can you imagine the torture that Perry would authorize? Thank God he’s doing so poorly tonight.
As a point of reference, see this in-depth analysis of the Perry executions, arranged in order of their controversy. He’s quite a guy, although one of his admirers reminds us that it “takes balls to execute an innocent man!” That’s why folks love him. Goldwater may have invented modern bloodthirsty angry conservatism but Perry is perfecting it.
In any event, Sullivan assesses the whole debate this way:
I still have no clear idea of what any of these candidates would do to turn the economy around. I’d support major tax reform, but all they have been offering is warmed over Reaganism. But Reagan is relevant for the 1980s, not the 20-teens. An entire generation has grown up and moved on. Tax receipts are at their lowest in fifty years; infrastructure is obviously vital; job growth was pathetic after the Bush tax cuts. Of course we all agree that only the private sector can truly spur economic growth, but, really: that’s it? …
My take-away? Perry has proved himself an extreme, inarticulate, incurious W clone. He doubled down on the vicious attacks on social security; and his rhetoric was off-key. Huntsman emerged as an actual candidate; Romney kicked ass. Bachmann is wearing thinner and thinner. Paul is Paul. Santorum is a Vatican crank. Gingrich is an angry old man. Cain has no business being up there. Perry’s poor performance gives Palin an opening. And an actual argument that people can understand about economic policy did not emerge.
As for others, there’s Josh Marshall:
On balance I’d say this was a strategic victory for Mitt Romney, even if it doesn’t show up immediately in the polls. Mitt didn’t do anything that amazing himself. But Perry doubled down, maybe tripled down on his frontal attack on Social Security and science in general. Romney moved in, in essence, to egg him on in that process. And the Romney press office let loose a fusillade of attacks in emails to the press.
And there’s Jonathan Chait:
The media seems to consider Romney the winner. Pardon the condescension, but they’re not thinking like Republican base voters. Romney approaches every question as if he is in an actual debate, trying to provide the most intellectually compelling answer available, within the bounds of political expediency. Perry treats questions as interruptions. What scientists do you trust on climate change? I don’t want to risk the economy. Are you taking a radical position on social security? We can have reasons or we can have results. His total liberation from the constraints of reason give Perry a chance to represent the Republican id in a way Romney simply cannot match.
And there’s Ezra Klein:
Mitt Romney looked like he had already won the Republican nomination. Rick Perry looked like he will win the Republican nomination. Michele Bachmann looked like she was beginning to realize she definitely wouldn’t win the Republican nomination.
And there’s the blogger at the Economist known as Democracy in America:
Overall, I thought Perry performed poorly and failed to justify and consolidate his position as the front-runner. Romney, it seemed to me, treaded water, gaining nothing and losing nothing. In sharp contrast to the first debate, Hunstman distinguished himself and showed he deserves to be considered a top-tier candidate, but I fear it’s too late.
And of course out here in Santa Monica there’s Digby:
Ok, I’ve seen enough of Rick Perry to know that he’s a uniquely vicious and ignorant piece of work who cannot be trusted with the executive branch. He went after Social Security, attacked science and defended his disgusting execution record, including the fact that he covered up the fact that at least one of his victims was an innocent man. … Romney and Huntsman are standard issue GOPers, the rest are total lunatics. And for some odd reason Newt Gingrich is trying to look like Justin Bieber.
She was not impressed, but then the ghost of Ronald Reagan was in the air.
And of course all this took place in the context of the dust-up about Obama’s big-deal address to a joint session of Congress on the jobs crisis. Yes, Obama requested the joint session be called for 7 September – the very night of this debate, at the very hour, and the Republicans were outraged. You cannot do that! You knew damned well about the Simi Valley debate! You’re trying to steal our thunder! America needs to hear what we say, without YOU stepping all over our brilliance and courage!
And Obama said fine – the next night will do – have a fine time out there. And they all gathered at Ronald Reagan’s grave and said how much they hated the federal government, and spoke about how they’d dismantle it bit by bit, as America cheered. And lots of people would be executed along the way. And scientists would be put in their place. Only Jon Huntsman, once Obama’s ambassador to China and dead-flat fluent in Mandarin, stepped back from all this.
And Obama must have been smiling back in Washington. He had let them have their drama-queen tantrums and shrugged. That’s how many a parent deals with their emotionally theatrical teenager. Let them embarrass themselves. They’ll sooner or later get it – they look silly. And then Obama stepped back and let them have their graveside extravaganza, free to spin their folksy yarns and tell their tall tales, all on their own, center stage, with no one questioning a thing they said. They want America to see who they really are, unfiltered and with no competing views? That’s fine. But beware of what you wish for. Sometimes you get it. You really get it.
Yep, Obama seems to have set them up. But then he was the one actually doing the Reagan thing.
No, really. You might remember that in the 2008 primaries, in an obscure interview, Obama outraged Democrats everywhere by saying he didn’t want to be a good president like Bill Clinton – if he made it to the presidency he wanted to be a transformative president like Ronald Reagan:
But I think, when I think about great presidents, I think about those who transform how we think about ourselves as a country in fundamental ways… And, you know, there are circumstances in which, I would argue, Ronald Reagan was a very successful president, even though I did not agree with him on many issues, partly because at the end of his presidency, people, I think, said, “You know what? We can regain our greatness. Individual responsibility and personal responsibility are important.” And they transformed the culture and not simply promoted one or two particular issues.
And Obama – all civility and thoughtfulness and reason and grace – is still working on that. That would transform the political culture, and maybe transform the culture itself.
Or maybe that’s a fool’s errand. But the other guys gathered at a grave at sunset and talked about what happened long ago, and about what was actually dead and had been buried there long ago. That photo up top is about that. It’s a sunset, an ending.