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When Ronald Reagan played the Las Vegas strip, more than a half century ago, his name was enshrined in neon lights, but otherwise the experience was brief and forgettable. Many years later he recalled that during the dinner show people in the audience “waved their fork” at a good line, and critics predicted that he’d “never play in Vegas again.”

Today, on the eve of the Nevada caucus, he staged a comeback. But the good lines all belonged to Barack Obama’s Democratic opponents, and their surrogates were waving knives, not forks. It is the latest tangent in the primary race, fueled by the Internet age’s occasional thirst for the inconsequential. (Guilty as charged).

In an interview with a Reno newspaper earlier this week, Obama said, “Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.”

He also said, “And, you know, the Republican approach, I think, has played itself out. 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 ten, fifteen years, in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom. Now, you’ve heard it all before. You look at the economic policies when they’re being debated among the Presidential candidates and it’s all tax cuts. Well, you know, we’ve done that, we tried it.”

It was enough to move Hillary Clinton’s team into high gear. She said in Las Vegas on Friday, “My leading opponent the other day said that he thought the Republicans had better ideas than Democrats the last 10 to 15 years. That’s not the way I remember the last 10 to 15 years.

“I don’t think it’s a better idea to privatize Social Security. I don’t think it’s a better idea to try to eliminate the minimum wage. I don’t think it’s a better idea to undercut health benefits and to give drug companies the right to make billions of dollars by providing prescription drugs to medicare recipients….”

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Bill Clinton told a crowd in Pahrump, “Her principal opponent said that since 1992, the Republicans have had all the good ideas. It goes along with their plan to ask Republicans to become Democrats for a day and caucus with you tomorrow, and then go back and become Republicans so they can participate in the Republican primary. I’m not making this up, folks.”

Then on a conference call organized by the Clinton campaign, Rep. Barney Frank joined in in criticizing Obama’s remark. “It’s just baffling to me that Senator Obama would speak so favorably of him.”

For his part, per MSNBC, John Edwards said that he “strongly disagreed” with identifying Reagan as an example of change. “When you think about what Ronald Reagan did to the American people. to the middle class, to the working people, he created a tax structure that favored the very wealthiest Americans and caused the middle class and working people to struggle every single day.”

I’d say that Reagan, somewhere, is amused by all this, were he not so busy laughing at the daily and even hourly comparisons that Republicans make of his legacy on their campaign trail.

Obama’s comments were presumptuous, but on a read over and over again I can’t seem to find anywhere that, in calling Reagan a seminal figure, he actually praises his views. Nor does he call the GOP’s ideas “better.” He just calls them the “party of ideas.” As recently as the New Hampshire primary campaign, Hillary Clinton praised Reagan for his communications skills. Upon Reagan’s death, Bill Clinton said this of the 40th president, “Hillary and I will always remember President Ronald Reagan for the way
he personified the indomitable optimism of the American people, and for
keeping America at the forefront of the fight for freedom for people
everywhere.”

The Obama campaign is surely not without its instances of the parse and parcel, and surrogates last week made sure to jump on Hillary Clinton’s praise of Lyndon Johnson. Maybe it is Johnson, wherever he is, who is the one really amused. Why wouldn’t he relish in a clash of egos and political positioning?

The day-long debate over Reagan, meant to drum up Democrat support as Obama courts independents, is about as substantial as Reagan’s Vegas act. He didn’t sing. He didn’t dance. He didn’t even act. He just talked.