What's with the Democratic Reagan Rhetoric? In their latest debate, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton clashed over comments Obama made about former President Ronald Reagan. Obama called Reagan a "transformational president." David Folkenflik looks at the political wisdom of a Democratic candidate invoking the memory of a Republican president.
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What's with the Democratic Reagan Rhetoric?

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What's with the Democratic Reagan Rhetoric?

What's with the Democratic Reagan Rhetoric?

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And that New York Times editorial also urged Senator Clinton to improve the tone of her campaign.

Our media correspondent, David Folkenflik, has been keeping an eye on how the candidates are using rhetoric, in particular Clinton's insistence that Obama had nice words for former President Ronald Reagan.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: You might reasonably expect to hear Ronald Reagan invoked by Republican candidates once every, oh, six or seven seconds these days. The Democrats not so much. But Barack Obama called Reagan a transformational president in an interview with the Reno, Nevada Gazette-Journal. And he continued...

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): He tapped into what people were already feeling, which is we want clarity, we want optimism, we want, you know, a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.

FOLKENFLIK: Initially, Clinton's surrogates attacked Obama for failing to condemn Reagan. The Clinton camp argued Reagan's policies had damaged working families. Then the candidate herself took up the theme in a debate in South Carolina.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): The facts are that he has said in the last week that he really liked the ideas of the Republicans over the last 10 to 15 years. And we can give you the exact quote. Now, I personally think they had ideas, but they were bad ideas.

FOLKENFLIK: Let's take a look at that exact quote. Obama was saying Reagan's ability to bring along voters of all stripes led to a resurgence of the conservative movement.

Sen. OBAMA: I think it's fair to say the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10, 15 years, in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom.

FOLKENFLIK: As you heard, Obama never actually said he liked those ideas. But the Clinton campaign kept on coming, airing radio commercials suggesting Obama likes the Republicans ideas.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #1: Really? Aren't those the ideas that got us into the economic mess we're in today? Ideas like special tax breaks for Wall Street, running up a $9 trillion debt, refusing to raise the minimum wage or deal with the housing crisis.

FOLKENFLIK: Obama responded in his own radio ad.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #2: In fact, Obama's led the fight to raise the minimum wage, close corporate tax loopholes, and cut taxes for the middle class.

FOLKENFLIK: And Obama's campaign hit on a new catchphrase.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #2: Hillary Clinton, she'll say anything, and change nothing.

FOLKENFLIK: But what about a liberal Democrat saying something good, anything at all, about an iconic conservative president?

Presidential historian Robert Dallek thinks it may have been a shrewd way for Obama to move beyond the partisan same old same old.

Mr. ROBERT DALLEK (Historian): What he is doing is trying to stand in a sense above race, above ethnicity, above gender, above, in some ways, the traditional Democratic Party mantras. And he wants to be seen as the American candidate, so to speak.

FOLKENFLIK: And in doing so, Obama was taking a page from Reagan's own handbook. One of his favorite devices was to talk about the iconic liberal president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

President RONALD REAGAN: What a wave of affection and pride swept through that crowd as he passed by in an open car.

FOLKENFLIK: In this speech in 1982, Reagan was recalling how he saw FDR for the first time during the Great Depression.

Pres. REAGAN: A familiar smile on his lips, jaunty and confident, drawing from us reservoirs of confidence and enthusiasm some of us had forgotten we had during those hard years.

FOLKENFLIK: By citing such memories, Reagan connected with others of his own generation who had grown up as Democrats but became disillusioned. This tended to enrage Reagan's critics, even as it widened his appeal.

So far, Barack Obama has at least shown he can anger the Clinton camp. The breadth of his appeal is still being measured and it'll get its next test tomorrow in South Carolina.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

COHEN: Senator Clinton has also expressed admiration for Ronald Reagan. You can read our fact-checking of the candidates' rhetoric at our Web site, npr.org.

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