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For the first time since the election of 1984, the Left is on the run and they don’t like it one bit. Back then, they had been stunned when the ignorant, trigger-happy cowboy Ronald Reagan upset Jimmy Carter in 1980; a man they were absolutely sure had almost no chance to win the presidency instead beat the incumbent rather handily. But they were devastated when Reagan crushed Walter Mondale in 1984 in one of the mightiest popular and electoral landslides in American political history. It just could . . . not . . . be . . . that Reagan won 525 electoral votes to Mondale’s 13, 49 states to Mondale’s one, and 54 million popular votes to Mondale’s 37 million.
Now history seems to be repeating itself. This time, in the election of 2016, they were certain that Donald Trump had less than no chance against the formidable juggernaut of the Dowager Empress of Chappaqua and the Clinton Machine. Where Reagan had been the first divorced man ever to win the presidency, Trump was already on wife No. 3. Whereas Reagan’s qualifications for high office consisted of his two terms as California governor (although everybody was quite sure that, deep down, he was only a B-movie actor), Trump had no qualifications at all. And when Trump put Hillary away mid-evening on election night, the stunned silence was punctuated with weeping, wailing, and the gnashing of Nate Silver’s teeth.
Reagan and Trump Parallels
Of course, it remains to be seen whether Trump follows the same trajectory as Reagan. But he’s off to a much faster start: unemployment down, the Dow up, the economy apparently booming, productivity and growth soaring, help wanted signs everywhere. It took Reagan a couple of years to wring the stench of Carterism out of the economy; Obama’s eight years of deliberate stasis, by contrast, have disappeared practically overnight.
In foreign policy, Reagan outraged the Beltway goo-goos by calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and vowed to bury it: we win, they lose. He engineered a big military buildup—something almost every Republican president seems to need to do in the wake of a failed Democratic administration. He appeared at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and challenged his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, to “tear down this wall.” Gorbachev didn’t, but the people of East Berlin did—although the Wall didn’t fall until almost a year after Reagan left office.
Now along comes Trump, trashing the toothless Paris climate change “accord,” tearing up the Iran deal, threatening the North American Free Trade Agreement, backing the Chinese off a bit, and frightening Kim Jong-un to the bargaining table in Singapore in order finally to put paid to the Korean War. Moving swiftly, as is his wont, Trump is rapidly delivering on his campaign promises to renegotiate the many bad deals he’s seen prior American leaders make and doesn’t much care what anybody else thinks about it.
In other words, Trump is pushing multiple but related objectives: to put his own stamp on the country as quickly as possible; to repeal in whole or at least in large part, the “legacy” of Barack Obama, including the tentacles of Obamacare; and to single-handedly overcome the effects of every administration since 1988—and in so doing, become the most “conservative” president since Reagan himself.
Hence the scalded-snakes reaction to everything Trump does. For all the activity, it’s not so much what Trump is doing, it’s that he’s doing it. This brings to mind Dr. Johnson’s famous observation when told of a female preacher among the Quakers: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” For far too long, Republicans have preached a good game of governmental reform but utterly failed to deliver; even Reagan never got rid of the Department of Education, nor reclaimed the Panama Canal. So not only was it not done well, it wasn’t done at all.
So Much for the Obama Legacy
Those days are now gone. Hardly systematically, but with the great energy in the executive that Alexander Hamilton so admired, Trump has targeted and then taken down a host of Permanent Bipartisan Fusion Party edifices. Regarding the former sacred cow of the EPA, he installed environmentalist bête-noire Scott Pruitt to rein it back in. Scornful of Elizabeth Warren’s unconstitutional Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, he sent Mick Mulvaney to oversee its dismantling. International trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and NAFTA are getting their turn in the stocks as well. And as for the fantasy of “climate change,” Trump is making coal and oil great again.
In short, Trump is making short work of the Obama “legacy,” which is to say of the entire Bush-Clinton-Bush-almost-Clinton-Obama-almost-Clinton-again project of post-Cold War mushy liberalism—something that, in retrospect, need not have happened. As I noted in this piece, George H. W. Bush was attached as Reagan’s vice-president at the 11th hour, after talk of a Reagan-Ford “co-presidency” got under Reagan’s skin. Bush had been one of the Gipper’s rivals for the nomination and there was little love lost between the two, but as these things used to happen, “balance” was achieved by placing the New England-born-and-raised patrician masquerading as a Texan with a well-burnished resume on the ticket with the untried Californian.
But Bush had little sympathy with Reagan and Reagan’s brand of populist conservatism, and almost immediately set out to overturn it during his one term in office, signaling his intentions to apologize for conservatism with his “thousand points of light” speech and his blather about “kinder, gentler” ideology.
And that, of course, is why he squandered his sky-high approval ratings in the aftermath of the first Gulf War and was easily beaten by the Duke and Dauphin of Arkansas, the Clintons. You can bet Trump won’t make that mistake. Besides, he’s already done his grateful nation a signal service by dispatching not only the Bushes but the Clintons themselves. Who’s going to be the next Mondale?
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