Think of this as Volume 14, Number 50 of A-Clue.com, the online newsletter I've written since 1997. Enjoy.
Few historians understand this. But politics itself is the art of the possible. It's political rhetoric that opens new possibilities.
Rhetoric is the language of myth and values. Politics is usually a sausage factory, a game of egos and interests.
Presidents become great in the public mind only in retrospect. Most are well advised to ignore what historians say about them while they're in power, because you don't know the long term result of policy changes until well after the fact, and you certainly can't know how your rhetoric will resonate.
This is especially true in a time of crisis, like the time we're now in. Every one of our crisis Presidents was terribly villified while in power. Their policy and rhetorical aims were viciously attacked by the special interests of their day. And it turned out in all these cases that their rhetoric, in the end, taught more lessons and cast a longer shadow than any policy.
Lincoln's rhetoric changed us from a nation where "the united states are" to one where "the United States is." Teddy Roosevelt's rhetoric taught us the value of the big stick, and to beware of big interests. FDR's rhetoric taught us fear was the real enemy and that the common good of all people was everyone's business. Nixon's rhetoric taught us to beware our enemies, both foreign and domestic.
This made for permanent changes in the national psyche. The policies of Lincoln were irrelevant to the 1890s yet his rhetoric resonated. The same was true for all our crisis Presidents -- the myths of their rhetoric changed values, and it was those changed values that were important later on.
This is especially true in our own time. And it's a lesson liberals need to understand about the current crisis leader, Barack Obama.
But his rhetoric always carried an edge, it divided the nation into two camps, and it was Nixon's camp that carried the day from that day to this. Without Nixon, Reagan would have been impossible. Conservatives honor Reagan and ignore Nixon, but it was Nixon's rhetoric, and his framing of basic issues, that made Reagan's triumphs possible. Had he not been such a paranoid fool, his 1972 re-election would have been an historic triumph, and no one would have ever heard of Jimmy Carter outside Georgia.
I don't think Obama has a Watergate in him. He is in many ways the anti-Nixon. But what is most clear, in looking at his record and his rhetoric, is that he is traveling the Nixon road.
Just as Nixon's actions belied his rhetoric, so with this President. Just as Nixon's story of the self-made man from Whittier College resonated with his generation, so does Obama's story of educational merit born in Hawaii in the time of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner resonate with the coming generation. Just as Nixon was hated by those who his record supported, so too with this President. Just as Nixon's rhetoric made him distrusted by his own supporters, so too with Obama and the netroots.
But in terms of Presidential politics, Nixon's actions disarmed the left. The only honest arguments left for it in 1972 were extreme arguments. That's what made the Democratic Party a collection of tribes, of often contradictory movements. It wasn't the dirty tricks that did in the Democrats, and what was done to Ed Muskie was entirely unnecessary. The consensus was clearly on Nixon's side by then and everything that happened was a Greek Tragedy that only sullied Nixon, not his aims.
The result of Watergate was to obscure what was really happening in the country, the triumph of the suburbs and of the Sunbelt. Suburban living grew across the southern landscape like kudzu, from northern Virginia clear across to San Antonio, Texas. And the illusion of safety created by that living became something precious to people, something they would defend, something they credited the Republican Party with. So that whenever the party then identified a new enemy suburbanites circled the wagons, and banded against it.
What Barack Obama's rhetoric is telling these people is that the circling is unnecessary, that it is in fact counter-productive, and demographic trends today prove him right. This recession has fallen hardest on our suburbs. A lot of our crime has moved out there, the distances make energy costs excruciating, and many cities are exploding inward. I see very few poor Mexicans in the Atlanta inner city -- they're all out in Lawrenceville and Duluth.
The rise of the Creative Class, the university as the center of economic development, this is a trend that has been percolating within the economy for some time, just as the suburbs percolated for decades before taking power. A tipping point has now been reached, such that embracing these new trends -- young people, black people, educated people, brown people, Asian people, women -- is now a demographic winner.
Obama's rhetoric resonates with these groups. It does not resonate with those suburbanites who are resource dependent, who came to maturity under the Nixon-era assumptions. These people have a reflexive fear and hatred of the President.
What the President's actions have done, however, is to disarm enough business critics so as to move the Republican Party out of the mainstream. Watch CNBC closely. They're not hating on the man now as they were six months ago. And the extremism of the Republican tribes is becoming an increasingly difficult sell. This will only increase with a Republican Congress, which is going to let loose the crazy and force the President to defend lines in the sand.
Growth is coming. It's coming out of our universities, and it's coming out of the renewable energy space. The doubling of renewable capacity does not look like much when the numbers are small. But they grow and will soon become obvious. The new money to be made in the next two years will see the "drill and kill" preferences of the suburbs as counter-productive, and recoil from it. As the President defies this Congress a true realignment can begin.
This is not the way I wanted it to happen. I supported Howard Dean as an activist defier of Bush's rhetoric and actions. I even supported John Edwards' FDR-like stand over Obama's call for conciliation.
But history tells me that turning a great ship of state on a dime is impossible. A new course that will last can only be turned to slowly, and with the support of the business community. Liberals who have devoted their lives to opposing Nixonism -- the anti-thesis of the last 40 years -- don't like to hear that. They want revenge. But evolution does not serve revenge until we're all long cold.
P.S. Extra points for those who can identify the gentleman at the right without looking at this link.