In the hours and days after Barack Obama’s presidential victory, for every Republican shouting that the sky was falling, there were more Democrats declaring the sky was the limit. Symbolically, Democrats are not wrong.
When Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, his victory was in part the rejection of the unpopular Jimmy Carter, but also the embrace of arguably the most popular president of the latter half of the 20th century. Reagan’s eloquence, sincerity, and charisma were second to none, and while conservative Republicans loved his politics as much as the man — most Americans simply loved the man. Reagan’s personality transcended politics, and to this day he remains conservative Republicans’ greatest popular symbol.
Now liberal Democrats have their Reagan. Not since John F. Kennedy has a Democratic figure energized his party to such a degree. No doubt, Democrats favored Obama’s policies over the Republicans, but for most supporters, their choice for president was primarily a matter of the heart. The reaction on election night proved as much and Obama’s superb speech further fueled their emotions. John Kerry and even the charismatic Bill Clinton never received such a reaction, precisely because they never possessed Obama’s Reaganesque aura.
But to quote H.L. Mencken, “Let us not forget that it is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense.” As a Reagan admirer, when I point out to my conservative friends that in terms of federal spending and exploding deficits, the 40th president’s limited government rhetoric didn’t always match reality, they are offended that I would dare question the Republican messiah. Likewise, conservatives can take solace in the fact that the right-wing nightmares and left-wing dreams induced by the new Democratic messiah won’t amount to much either.