Peter Beinart’s column last week on The Rise of the New Left generated much debate and discussion. Among his many points, Beinart argued that Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both governed under a paradigm which I might describe as The Age of Reagan.
“In 1981,” he writes, Ronald Reagan shattered decades of New Deal consensus by seeking to radically scale back government’s role in the economy. In 1993, Bill Clinton brought the Democrats back to power by accepting that they must live in the world Reagan had made.” (Bold mine.)
Much of what frustrated Republicans about Clinton during the 1990s was that he essentially stole their ideas and pretended to be a conservative. In retrospect, this should have been a happy dilemma. After all, having someone co-opt your ideas is certainly preferable to having them win on their own merits – which is precisely what Barack Obama has done twice since 2008 (when, I would argue, The Obama Era began.)
Bill Clinton won elections, sure, but he was always operating under the shadow of Reagan. He was always playing road games. His election can then be summed up thusly: Having lost the war, Democrats won a battle.
The point of Beinart’s piece is to warn Democrats (who came of age during The Age of Reagan) not to forget that the world has changed. But I think he inadvertently raises another point. If a Democrat could win the White House twice during The Age of Reagan, then it’s certainly possible the right Republican could win the presidency during The Obama Era.
Enter Chris Christie. He could be the bizarro Bill Clinton.
Just as America was willing to accept a “moderate” Democratic governor from a Southern state in 1992, might they be willing to accept a “moderate” Republican from a North-eastern state in 2016? The same combination of political circumstances which allowed Clinton to win in the 90s might allow Christie to win in today’s environment.
(It’s not a perfect analogy, of course. For one thing, it took three presidential losses before Democrats decided they had to have a “come to Jesus talk” with themselves. Republicans have only lost two presidential elections.)
Regardless, even if Christie did win, we can still argue over whether or not this would be a good thing for conservatives. Clinton’s election was a tacit admission that the Old Left was over — that liberals had overreached during the 1960s and 70s (and after). Would a Christie presidency be a concession that only a moderate Republican can survive in The Obama Era? Would Christie have to have a reverse Sister Souljah moment during the campaign? And once elected, would he then have to declare “the era of big government is back?”
On the other hand, one could argue that Bill Clinton’s presidency helped pave the way for Barack Obama. So maybe there is hope for conservatives in a post-Christie world?