When Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had their recent squabble over Ronald Reagan—Obama noting that Reagan successfully altered the country's political trajectory, Clinton focusing attention on the disastrous effects of Reagan's policies—neither mentioned one of the most important pieces of Reagan's legacy: the impact he had on conservatism and liberalism as ideologies and movements. But the question of where each of these candidates might leave the country ideologically could ultimately be the most lasting determinant of the success of the next Democratic presidency. Unfortunately, neither Clinton nor Obama has addressed the question directly. But there are hints in both campaigns about where they might take their own followers, and where political activists on both sides will be eight years from now.
This is in some ways a more important question than the "theory of change" argument that Clinton, Obama, and John Edwards had for many months. It isn't just about how you move legislation or what kinds of coalitions you build, but about the ideological flavor your presidency carries, and what kind of shape your party and your movement is in once you're done.
Today, progressives feel as though they've been walking in the desert, and the promised land is at last coming into view. They don't necessarily need their own Reagan to get there, mostly because progressives simply don't do hero-worship in quite the same way conservatives do (on Sean Hannity's weekend Fox show Hannity's America, there is a regular segment called "What Would Reagan Do?" and according to the Social Security Administration, Reagan was the 155th most popular name in America for girls in 2006). But Reagan's significance to the conservative movement does shed light on what Clinton or Obama might leave behind for the progressive movement.
Reagan was nurtured in the conservative movement, and by the time he became a national figure he had a well-defined case he made about the nature of both conservatism and liberalism. His vision wasn't just about government, it was also about America itself. His 1950s nostalgia—not the actual 1950s, but the 1950s as it was presented on TV and in movies—was one where men wore hats, women tended the home, kids were polite, and minorities were invisible. We were strong and true, staring down those devious commies and facing each day with an optimistic smile and a spring in our step. Reagan certainly had an argument about government—his famous claim from his inauguration speech that "Government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem"—but six months earlier, when accepting his party's nomination, he presented the Republicans as "a party ready to build a new consensus with all those across the land who share a community of values embodied in these words: family, work, neighborhood, peace and freedom."
Reagan didn't argue just that Jimmy Carter or Tip O'Neill was wrong, he argued that liberalism was wrong. The "government" of which he spoke was a pernicious force because it accommodated liberal impulses, embodied liberal ideals, and sought to achieve liberal goals. It was an ideological case, built as much on resentment toward hippies and welfare cheats and sexual deviants as it was on a return to that mythical prelapsarian America. But at the moment, neither Clinton nor Obama is making much of an ideological argument. It shouldn't be a surprise, because both in their unique ways have been avoiding ideology for all their careers.
While Clinton is clearly comfortable with partisan conflict, she has never shown any inclination to initiate a direct conflict with conservatism itself. In the battles she has fought with her husband and on her own over the years, making an explicit case against conservatism and for progressivism seemed like political suicide, and hewing to the center was the only route to success. This isn't to say she and Bill didn't believe in what came to be called the "Third Way," (presented as not just the ideology of the center but a reimagining of American ideology itself), because they clearly did. But if anything, the Third Way was more a critique of liberalism than of conservatism—which was certainly how it felt to progressives who felt betrayed when Bill Clinton declared, "The era of big government is over." However you look at it, by all appearances it was where both Bill and Hillary felt most at home. But it also came from hard experience.
As Jonathan Chait recently wrote in the New Republic, after Bill Clinton was first elected governor, "it turned out Arkansas was too conservative for the Clintons, and the voters turned Bill out of office after just one term. When Clinton ran again four years later, he had refashioned himself. He brought on the unsentimental Dick Morris as a strategist. Hillary refashioned her appearance and adopted her husband's surname. Bill cultivated ties with some of the business interests he had alienated. Ten years of modest, steady progress followed. The Clinton presidency followed the same pattern. The Clintons came in with dreams of progressive transformation, were broken by a conservative backlash, brought in Morris, made the necessary compromises, and achieved progress where they could, inch by inch." But the "progressive transformation" the Clintons sought looks awfully modest today, most notably the health-care reform that had as its centerpiece enhancing the role of HMOs.
As for Obama, both his personal and political life have been about straddling the seams of American society, finding ways to be who he is while reaching out to those who might be naturally opposed to him and his agenda. When he became the first African American editor of the Harvard Law Review, it was largely because both the left and right at the school felt he understood their positions and gave them a fair hearing, in the midst of fevered battles over race and politics. From early in his 2004 Senate campaign, commentators marveled at his ability to win over downstate white voters, unprecedented for a black Chicago politician. Just as Clinton's centrism is a genuine expression of her beliefs, so is Obama's desire to pull enough Republicans to his side to accomplish his goals.
Where both Clinton and Obama face a new challenge is in the unique situation the next president will find upon taking office next year. In his article, Chait quotes the Prospect's own Mark Schmitt, who says that Clintonism "is a way of accommodating liberalism to a hostile political environment." But the question for both Democratic candidates today is how their model applies to a political environment that may contain hostile forces within Washington, but in terms of public opinion is much more ideologically friendly. Indeed, with the Bush legacy of a discredited foreign policy, fiscal mismanagement, and domestic failure all contributing to an overwhelming desire not just for change per se but for progressive change, 2008 offers the most ideologically welcoming moment for Democrats since Lyndon Johnson's landslide reelection in 1964.
So do both Obama and Clinton each secretly hope that his or her presidency will hasten the day when conservatism lies crushed, a desiccated husk of a movement whose adherents have been driven to the hills and whose ideas are dismissed and ridiculed? Do they want progressivism to become what it was in the early 1960s, simply the default setting, the starting point for any discussion of what government should do and how? The answer is probably yes, notwithstanding the perspective each has on the relationship of means and ends. Hillary Clinton would probably argue that in the end, the most important thing a Democratic president can do for progressivism is succeed: deliver universal health care, an end to the war, and a healthier economy, and the path will be eased for future progressive candidates and progressive initiatives. The fight will be hard, but the result is what matters, not whether you made a broad case for progressivism in the process. Obama might say that if you bring in enough independents and moderate Republicans to achieve those goals, the conservative true believers who remain on the other side will be marginalized into irrelevance—but it can't be done without friendly co-optation over the center.
The great unifying force feeding the progressive movement of the last few years has, of course, been George W. Bush. And while many have noted that Hillary Clinton will unify Republicans just as her husband did, the two cases are notably different in kind. Though progressives certainly have a visceral reaction to Bush, his presidency has provided them with a number of touchpoints that help progressives define who they are by defining what they are against: the stolen election, the bumbling military adventurism, the economic policies that reward the wealthy at everyone else's expense, the attempt to make domestic politics into a sectarian religious conflict, the contempt for science and reason, the use of fear as cover for a dismantling of constitutional protections and the elevation of torture to official American government policy; the list goes on and on. Progressives may hate Bush, but they know exactly why they do: it's because of what he's done.
Conservatives hate Clinton, on the other hand, not because of what she's done but because of who she is. They see her, absurdly, as the embodiment of the liberalism they despise, the liberalism of the Sixties, of free love and rejection of authority and moral relativism. That this portrait is ridiculous makes it no less powerful. (Try if you can to imagine the former "Goldwater Girl" wearing a tie-dye and twirling to Jimi Hendrix after sucking a bong hit from the lips of the hippie dude from down the hall. I don't think so.)
And that brings us back to our question: if today's ascendant progressive movement draws its strength from its antipathy to George W. Bush, and today's declining conservative movement draws its strength from hatred of Bill and Hillary Clinton, can either Democratic candidate do what Ronald Reagan did—nurture his own ideological movement and beat down the other side's at the same time? The answer may depend on whether they're willing to do what they haven't done much before, and certainly not in this campaign: not just argue for specific policies or a theory of change, but provide a progressive vision of the American future. In other words, it's not about means, it's about ends.