News & Views from 465 California Street

Keeping the Flame Alive

Clint Reilly

Barack Obama’s landslide was an awesome victory for all Americans and a personal triumph for Obama. As he strode to the podium to declare victory, it was also apparent that Obama had become the surrogate for the hopes and dreams of millions of people who were finished with the callousness, selfishness and bankruptcy of a failed governing philosophy.

It was the last battle in a long war that has raged for the past 30 years.

I remember vividly when it all began, the night Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter and the demonization of government became a mainstream political platform.

Reagan’s overwhelming victory, like Obama’s last week, brought massive gains for his party all the way down the ticket.

I was not immune to Reagan’s coattails. I was advising five Democratic campaigns in California and two of my candidates suffered razor-thin losses that would have been wins in a normal year.

Patrick Johnston, a Democratic Assembly candidate from Stockton lost by only 33 votes on Election Day (although he won after a recount). James Corman, the 20-year veteran Democratic congressman from the San Fernando Valley, lost by 750 votes. Many Republicans won photo-finishes due to Reagan’s landslide and Carter’s early concession.

I first met President Carter in Sacramento, where he campaigned hard for my client Robert Matsui, who was then elected to Congress. Later, I accompanied Congressman Corman to the White House to visit the president. When I oversaw a Los Angeles fundraiser headlined by Carter, my grandmother flew from Berkeley to meet him. In other words, Reagan’s victory stung me personally.

Many Democratic lions were also defeated that night, including Senators Frank Church of Idaho, Birch Bayh of Indiana, Warren Magnunson of Washington, and even George McGovern of South Dakota.

Initially, pundits blamed the losses on Carter’s poor handling of the economy. But when the dust cleared, it was apparent that Americans had rendered a negative judgment on “big government.”

The New Deal was said to be dead and buried. But many Democrats refused to attend the funeral.

During the 1980’s, I ran the campaigns of Central Valley Congressman Tony Coelho, leader of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

During the years when Tip O’Neil was House Speaker, Coelho was the chief strategist who kept the Democratic Party alive in Washington. His canny management led many Democrats to victory and kept the party competitive during Reagan’s reign of terror on government.

In 1987, a 46-year-old mother of five hired me to manage her campaign for Congress. She had never held elected office, but she had chaired the California Democratic Party and headed the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.

After a tough campaign, Nancy Pelosi was elected to Congress.

Her consummate charm and all-consuming commitment to reform were obvious to me even in those early days of her career. They were the same qualities that helped make her America’s first female Speaker of the House, leading Democrats back to power in the House in 2006 and then cementing a durable majority in 2008.

Speaker Pelosi reflects the passionate belief among congressional Democrats that Reaganism has overstayed it’s usefulness as America’s dominant governing philosophy.

Pelosi and Coelho are only two of the Democrats I worked closely with who labored tirelessly through the lean years, holding faith with the conviction that America needs a strong federal government to counterbalance a powerful private sector and to protect the public interest.

After 28 years of toil in and out of the political wilderness, a sea change has thrust the Democratic Party back into power with all the force of Reagan’s 1980 revolution. Since 2006, Republicans have lost 12 Senate seats, 46 House seats and the Presidency.

Today I salute these courageous Democrats who kept the flame alive so Barack Obama could carry the torch to victory in 2008.

Comments (11)

  • Mr. Reilly,
    I believe that a major reason that Carter lost to Reagan was because
    of the Iranian hostage crisis that went on for so long.
    Remember that the tv news would start off with ‘xxx days since the
    hostages have been held.

    Many blamed Carter that they hadn’t been freed.

    I’ve heard that Reagan emissaries were doing behind the scenes talk
    with the Iranians: keep the hostages until Reagan comes to power.
    With Reagan as president they’d get a better deal. They were released
    as soon as Reagan took office, and then lo and behold: the
    Iran-Contra arms deal.

    So if the hostages had been released during Carter’s administration,
    he would have won. True?

    Posted by: lee | November 11th, 2008 at 9:22 am

  • Mr. Reilly, Thank you for the piece that appeared in the Marin IJ today. Those of us who have lived in California have been dealing with Mr. Reagan and his politics of greed since he was elected governor in 1966. (You remember, things like “Let’s close the state hospitals and build a network of more humane community-based facilities.” The public system was dismantled and then — “Oops, gosh, guess we really can’t afford to do that just now.”) I read an article some time ago by an historian who opined that, in the long view of history, Mr. Reagan will be remembered as the president who taught Americans that it’s O.K. to be selfish. Yes, it has been a long 28 years. But undoubtedly, human nature being what it is, the pendulum will swing his way again. The good thing is that hopefully I won’t have to be here to see it. Oh, and thanks for this opportunity to vent. J.L.

    Posted by: J.L. | November 11th, 2008 at 10:43 am

  • The 2008 Democratic Victory reminds me ofCahill’s book KHow the Irish saved civilization’.
    As long as the Democrats balance business and government then Their reign will be a Rennaisance.

    Posted by: Steve LeVassar | November 11th, 2008 at 1:27 pm

  • Terrific History!
    I like to think our efforts of support for our African-American brothers and sisters during the 60′s and 70′s had no little to do with laying th groundeork for thr pinacle on which Obama now stands.

    Posted by: Father Gene Boyle | November 11th, 2008 at 2:33 pm

  • Boy, you liberals sure see the world in one view. Obama’s win last week was hardly a “landslide” when compared to Reagan’s two “real landslides”. Frankly, it was a delight to read your anguish over his pure domination of Washington during his successful 8 years in office. It may be Obama’s time but he clearly has quite a mountain to climb to ever be mentioned in Reagan’s league.

    Funny, you never mentioned how the corrupt & disgraced, Tony Coehlo , left office w/his tail between his legs. The man was fraud & deserved to be put behind bars. Nice client…

    Posted by: Peter S. | November 11th, 2008 at 3:11 pm

  • Our family wishes our President Obama well.
    Excellent manifesto….”America needs a strong federal government to counterbalance a powerful private sector and to protect the public interest.”
    Central planning? The Soviets tried it. It didn’t work.”
    Obama’s election was a foregone conclusion: 80% of the media campaigned for him; 97% Blacks voted race; Acorn; corrupt state officials like Helen Kelly of Ohio using taxpayer’s money to campaign for Obama; backed by billionaires Soros, Gates, and Warren. I’m OK with all of this. Democrats are known as the party of the rich; the aristocracy always sat closest to the king.
    A positive outcome of Obama’s election is that after 2 terms I believe the Clintons will both by 70 years old. Let us hope—too old to again occupy the White House.
    As a family with many nephews and nieces of draft age and near draft age, we pray President Obama does not become an FDR type President getting us into a world war, draft, and rounding up Americans and putting them in concentration camps.
    Respectfully………….Hank R

    Posted by: Hank | November 12th, 2008 at 9:31 am

  • Dear Mr. Reilly, I have come to look forward to Tuesday’s Mercury and your column. I am now 82 and recall vividly the people and issues that
    you have written about. I have never forgiven Ronald Reagen for closing our mental institutions. He was the epitome of the greed that has
    enveloped this nation. I am SO hopeful that our priorities will change now with our new young and vigorous president.

    Keep writing.

    Sincerely Betty L.

    Posted by: Betty L. | November 12th, 2008 at 9:33 am

  • Hi Clint,

    That was a very nice article in yesterday’s Mercury News.

    I often wonder how the politics are the same over and over. I have seen the middle class workers of our country, of which I was one, squeezed so hard that the family is forced into debt beyond any ability to recover. While the government can do this by bailouts and taxes, the American family cannot.

    I am looking for someone with a voice and ability to see what I see and tell the world about it. It is the cornerstone of this countries housing problem and the cornerstone of the fix. That is the change from owner occupied home mortgages from one income to qualify for a mortgage, to two incomes to qualify for a mortgage. Then to make it worse, they securitized those mortgages with false value ratings and down the tubes we go. The build up of this enormous debt has fueled the rapid growth of everything. Go faster, grow faster, everything must go faster, all for the benefit of a few and determent of the many.

    In 1965 the mortgage a family, or anyone, could get was determined by 28 % of gross income. That and the interest rate would reveal the maximum dollars you could borrow, and coupled with a down payment made the maximum a family, or one, could pay for a home. Very rapidly the price, and cost of homes jumped up to twice their value. So now with two incomes required for housing, that means rentals too, and yes apartment rents too. NO way for families to have someone at home to raise the children. Or to get a temporary job if the main bread winner lost his/her job. For a single person or single parent the cost for housing is so high that there is nothing left to live on. Yes life in 1965 was a lot slower then but every one was happier, could save some money for the kids college education and also save for retirement.

    I came to California in 1965 with a wife and five children. I was 34 years old, not a professional, just a electronic technician. I was able to buy a new 4 bedroom home with 10% down, and the monthly payment including the principle, interest, insurance, and taxes was equal to one weeks gross pay. The average family can not do this today! If we, our country, make this same requirement for owner occupied housing, the cost of everything, that is market forces, will moderate, life will be slower and true progress made for the average people.

    I wish I where a better writer to better get my point across. Please let me know by email or phone how I can better describe this CORNERSTONE.

    Do you remember the popular saying “its the economy, stupid” ? Now it should be “its the debt, stupid” !!

    Jim the retired guy

    Posted by: Jim | November 12th, 2008 at 3:51 pm

  • Dear Clint,
    I never thought that an African-American would win the election for President of the United States in my lifetime. When I used to teach African-American students in Bayview Hunter’s Point, I encouraged them to become anything they put their mind to, yet in my heart I struggled with the social construct of racism that has been an integral part of U.S. history, especially around exclusion and white privilege.

    Regardless of where people stand politically, I pray for the new first family daily. President Elect Obama has inherited a ‘holy mess’. His calm demeanor and his ‘perception of the world’ is one of healing and I truly believe he will bring synergy to government again. The world does not hold the United States on the pedestal that we once enjoyed. However, it is imperative that we regain the trust of the world again. We need a paradigm shift and I believe….WE CAN! It begins with a servant leader and visionary thinking. I THINK THE AMERICAN PEOPLE SEE BOTH IN BARACK OBAMA AND THEY EXPRESSED THEIR VIEWS THROUGH THEIR VOTES!!!

    Dr. Hollis M. Pierce

    Posted by: Dr. Hollis M. Pierce | November 12th, 2008 at 4:19 pm

  • That flame you describe may well turn into a fire that consumes our basic freedoms, our disposable income and individual motivation that made this country great. No country ever prospered with big government, high taxes and taking from the productive and giving to the unproductive. This guy is the wrong person for the job and that will become apparent. People like you will find someone else to blame but it will become obvious to the objective that he will go in the wrong direction alone with the other liberal democrats. My view on Carter, is that he was a good hearted man he was bungler as president. He had the economy in a mess. It took President Reagan a few years to straighten it out by getting inflation down and passing tax laws (although a bitter pill at the time) worked to get a good economy going for six of his eight years and eight of Clinton’s years despite Clinton’s errors.

    Posted by: Don S. | November 13th, 2008 at 1:14 pm

  • Mr. Reilly,

    I do enjoy reading your insights.

    Regarding the “Flame” article, I’m afraid I’m not quite as optimistic as you. Yes, it has been proven once again: “that America needs a strong federal government to counterbalance a powerful private sector and to protect the public interest.” However, it is my understanding that a large part of the power wielded by that “powerful private sector” is exercised through the influence of their lobbyist.

    Since the Carter years, the term “lobbyist” has also taken on the connotation of big, very big money. Aren’t the Democrats just as susceptible as the Republicans, to the lobbyist and their financial contributions? To the degree that they, the Democrats are susceptible, then how effective, how strong will our “counterbalance” be?

    Posted by: Richard Wynne | November 18th, 2008 at 8:41 pm

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