Beyond the icons

BEYOND THE ICONS…. In light of the silly Republican in-fighting this week over whether or not to obsess over Ronald Reagan, MSNBC’s “First Read” said, “The issue of Reagan reminds us of the Kennedy-obsession Democrats had for decades. One could argue it took the Democrats nearly 30 years to kick the Kennedy habit (maybe longer). So, this Reagan issue may take the Republicans another 10 years to get over.”

That’s probably a misread on how Dems perceive JFK. Jonathan Chait explained:

The Democratic obsession with the Kennedys is/was primarily stylistic. It recurs whenever a young, stylish presidential candidate makes people feel inspired. It is not, and really never has been, common for Democrats to argue that a certain course of action is wise simply because a Kennedy once advocated it. But Republicans have been doing so with regard to Reagan for twenty years now.

I think that’s exactly right. There have been various discussions in Democratic circles over the last couple of decades about the future direction of the party, what policy priorities should be emphasized, how to grow the party, etc. It’s exceedingly unusual for party leaders to reference John F. Kennedy as some kind of policy signpost. That’s not to say his memory isn’t widely revered; it is. But when considering domestic, economic, or foreign affairs, when was the last time a leading Democrat said, “Let’s just do what JFK would do if he were here”?

In contrast, for many Republicans, the answer to almost every significant policy and/or political question is, “Follow Reagan.” More than two decades after the 40th president left office, the obsession in some corners is kind of creepy, and bears no resemblance to the Democratic affinity for JFK. Kennedy is looked to more as a symbol of inspiration; Reagan is considered some kind of timeless, all-knowing sage. In GOP circles, to reference his name or ideology is to be self-evidently correct.

To borrow “First Read’s” word, Democrats have never had this “habit” with regards to Kennedy.

Ramesh Ponnuru suggested this points to a certain vacuity on the left, since conservatives’ “reverence for Reagan” is rooted in “philosophical content.”

But this misses the point. The left’s “philosophical content” is rooted outside the memory of JFK. Some on the left don’t even care for Kennedy’s approach to policy (see Yglesias, Matt). As Chait added, liberalism’s “philosophical content does not consist of latching onto an old president, glossing over the reality of his record, and trying to recreate all of his actions whether or not they have any bearing upon the circumstances of the present day…. The ‘philosophical content’ of Reagan-worship is a cult-like process for circumscribing original thought.”

It’s painful to think it “may take the Republicans another 10 years to get over” this, but given what we’ve seen of late, it may take even longer than that.