Archive for January, 2011

Source: The Globe & Mail, 1-25-11

…History suggests Abraham Lincoln’s faith in “the better angels of our nature” has been a fleeting sentiment in American politics. Indeed, his 1861 inaugural appeal to secessionists preceded by only five weeks the outbreak of the paradoxically named Civil War.

Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, with its “self-evident” truths, among them the belief that all men are created equal. Yet, while campaigning for president in 1800, his political pamphlets derided John Adams as “having a hideous hermaphroditical character.”

“Politics could get very raw and tough in those days,” McGill University history professor Gil Troy explained in an interview. But incivility in American politics “has waxed and waned.”

The framers of the U.S. Constitution understood human nature. They wanted to prevent American society from degenerating into rigid, ideologically driven factions – and their potential for destructive conflict. They designed a political system to favour consensus over confrontation.

“They hoped there would be enough countervailing forces and conflicting loyalties, and enough of a sense of a common cause and big-picture nationalism, that there wouldn’t be these permanent parties,” Prof. Troy said.

Instead, rabid partisanship is as much a pillar of American politics as the separation of powers. And it is no coincidence that the current language of political debate rivals in vitriol the worst periods of past two centuries.

“What’s going on in our politics is a reflection of what’s going on in our culture,” Prof. Troy, an American native, added. “We’re in a phase in our history where our culture’s become extremely vulgar. The blogosphere is extremely shrill.”…

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By Gil Troy, Montreal Gazette, 1-13-11

It’s time to return to the notion of ‘malice toward none’ and ‘charity for all’

A makeshift memorial for  victims of the shooting in Tucson: the tragedy sparked concern about  overheated political discourse.

A makeshift memorial for victims of the shooting in Tucson: the tragedy sparked concern about overheated political discourse.

Photograph by: Eric Thayer, Reuters

The tragic Arizona rampage that critically injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed six citizens, including 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, who wanted to see “how our government works,” has triggered the predictable recitations about America’s long history of political violence -without any evidence that this was a political crime.

That vast numbers of shocked observers immediately concluded that the gunman’s lunatic actions were in some way linked to the present fervid red-blue debate in the United States speaks volumes about the overheated rhetoric that has come to characterize much of America’s political discourse in recent years.

But political civility has an equally long and robust U.S. pedigree. We should appreciate the coalition-builders, not the partisans; the statesmen, not the demagogues; the magnanimous uniters, not the cranky dividers. In matters political, the big broad tent with stakes driven deep into America’s rich soil is more constructive and more lasting than partisan lean-tos tilting left or right.

Transcending partisanship, understanding that every discussion about politics or culture or society need not be reduced to a red-blue, all-or-nothing partisan paradigm, is an essential first step in embracing a civilizing center. As a man of enlightenment, George Washington assumed that if his reason led him to certain conclusions, someone else’s reason, equally reasonably, could lead to an opposing position. Alas, two centuries later, such civility often invites charges of being weak and vacillating from both sides of the great over-reported color-coded divide.

Some anger is healthy in a democracy. Especially in our consumer-addled, narcotized societies, anger motivates. We need passion to pull ourselves away from our iPods and plunge into politics. Moreover, anger can be logical. The humanitarian philosopher Elie Wiesel notes, wisely, that anger is the rational response to terrorism. The mass murder of innocents and genocidal calls to destroy Western society should not be treated lightly, moderately.

Nevertheless, our parents were right: when you play with matches you risk getting burned. Red and blue partisans stoke a fury that demonizes fellow citizens and curdles their own souls, singeing the social fabric that strong communities and effective democracies need.

Although partisan mudslinging has long been as American as apple pie, the U.S. tolerance for calcified and polarizing partisan conflict seems to have mushroomed in the two centuries since the founding fathers wrote the constitution. The constitutionalists expected conflict -but they hoped to manage it, subdue it, dissipate it. During the passionate debate over whether to ratify the constitution, the man who would be remembered as “the father of the constitution,” James Madison, wrote the classic American text on the subject in The Federalist Papers. Madison identified the “tendency to break and control the violence of faction” as one of the most important “advantages promised by a well-constructed union.” He sought “enlightened statesmen” who could “adjust … clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good.”

Of course, U.S. politics has long been brutal, more contact sport than bake-off. But attitudes change. Leadership counts. Today’s sour, cynical climate is a historical construct. It can be made better -or worse.

After the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called for “malice toward none” and “charity toward all.” In the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan presided over periods of patriotic renewal and increased idealism. In the 21st century, that kind of leadership, those kinds of results, are still possible. We eagerly await such leaders.

This search for civility, learning to disagree agreeably, might be the quintessential democratic quest. Democracy represents a leap of faith that a diverse group of people can find common ground, be they the 22 kids in my elementary school who elected me class president or the 300 million people the U.S. president represents. Seeking to make as many people in a given society winners, without alienating or marginalizing the losers, is a noble endeavour. Developing the common vocabulary -Madison’s “public voice” -and finding that broad social consensus is indeed democracy’s Holy Grail.

Today, more and more people turned off by the shrill partisanship of the engaged few are joining a disengaged majority. They escape the hardscrabble fights, seeking comfort in what Thomas Jefferson, quoting the Renaissance thinker Montaigne, called the “softest pillow” of political ignorance. Fortunately, even amid our current challenges, most Americans enjoy the luxury of being able to escape. But rather than being forced between the “softest pillow” of political ignorance and the hard rocks of partisan warfare, Americans once again need to seek the Madisonian golden mean, Washington’s “goodly fabric,” a muscular moderation and civilizing statesmanship that tackles problems practically and creatively rather than ideologically with blinders on, from the left or the right.

Civility is mass-produced by millions of small but bighearted gestures, but all too easily destroyed by a few loud or violent small-minded people. All of us, regardless of our political colors, should make amends for the hysteria of these last few years, reflect on today’s continuing tensions, and approach tomorrow with more openness, mutuality, acceptance, respect, humility and love -even for those who will still dare to disagree with us.

Gil Troy teaches history at McGill University. He is the author of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.
© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette

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By Gil Troy, 1-11-11

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University. He is the author of “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents” (Basic Books, 2008). His latest book, co-edited with Vincent J. Cannato, is “Living in the Eighties” (Oxford University Press, 2009).

The Tucson, Arizona, rampage left Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords critically wounded, six citizens dead, and millions of Americans jumping to the right conclusions for the wrong reasons. Yes, we need more civility in our politics. But no, we should not use one crazy gunman’s random fixations and horrific violence to trigger the kind of reform modern political culture needs.

I confess, having written in 2008 Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, calling for centrism and civility, I am tempted to flow with the conventional wisdom this time. Right after this mass shooting at one of Gifford’s “Congress on Your Corner” citizen meet-and-greets, preaching pundits began blaming the vitriol in general, and Republicans in particular. The fact that Sarah Palin’s website featured Giffords’s district in crosshairs in in 2010, supposedly symbolized everything wrong with politics today.

Human beings love stories, we crave causality. We rubberneck at traffic accidents trying to divine the triggering chain of events, hoping to avoid that fate ourselves. After President John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, its seeming randomness magnified the national trauma. Back then, many Texans vilified Kennedy, but no evidence linked those particular critics with Kennedy’s murder.

Politics is a domesticated form of verbal, ideological and personal warfare, frequently explained with fighting words. The word “campaign” originated in the 1600s from the French word for open field, campagne. With contemporary soldiers fighting sustained efforts, often on the wide country terrain, the term quickly acquired its military association. The political connotation emerged in seventeenth-century England to describe a lengthy legislative session. In nineteenth-century America, “campaign” was part of the barrage of military terms describing electioneering: as the party standard bearer, a war horse tapping into his war chest and hoping not to be a flash-in-the-pan—a cannon that misfires—mobilized the rank-and-file with a rallying cry in battleground states to vanquish their enemies.

In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt rallied the troops—his Democratic supporters—by saying, “I am an old campaigner, and I love a good fight.” In 2008, America’s modern Gandhi, Barack Obama himself, telegraphed toughness at the start of his campaign, saying of his Republican rivals: “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.”

“Targeting” opponents and even drawing crosshairs on rival candidates is not the problem. As candidates, both Roosevelt and Obama also spoke creatively and constructively. Political civility comes from tempering toughness with openness, seeking consensus, acknowledging complexity, varying tone, and periodically agreeing to disagree agreeably. Politics sours when the tone is constantly shrill, when enemies are demonized, positions polarized.

There is too much shouting in American politics today, from left and right, against George W. Bush and Barack Obama, on MSNBC and Fox, by reporters seeking sensation and by bloggers stirring the pot. Too many Americans have forgotten George Washington’s enlightenment teaching that his reason could lead him to one conclusion, while someone else’s reason could lead, reasonably, to an opposite conclusion. Politics becomes scary when dozens of complex crosscutting issues are reduced to one with-me-or-against-me worldview. As a Democrat who opposes gun control, Gabrielle Giffords herself refuses to be doctrinaire. New York’s colorful former Mayor Ed Koch, once said: “If you agree with me on nine out of twelve issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on twelve out of twelve issues, see a psychiatrist.”

To our credit, most Americans understand when to holster partisan anger—even righteous indignation. And Americans excel at mounting the patriotic tableaus we witnessed on 9/11 when Democrats and Republicans spontaneously sang “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps, on Election Night 2008 when John McCain and Barack Obama spoke so graciously of each other, and this Monday when the nation stopped for a moment of silence.

“Democracy begins in conversation,” the great American educator John Dewey taught. The conversation should be passionate but tempered with a touch of humility, an acknowledgment of complexity, a reminder of the humanity of one’s opponent, and an appreciation for the enduring values, common history, and shared fate that bind fellow citizens together. If within that solid consensus parties quarrel over economic theories, policy details, leaders’ personalities, or government’s exact dimensions, that is natural and healthy. It is the slash and burn, all or nothing, red versus blue, my way or the highway rhetoric that has been so unnatural and unhealthy. Political parties work when they help individuals solve problems together; coalition building works best when people have a range of affiliations, when people might pray together one morning and go to competing political meetings that night. Political parties become destructive when they demonize and polarize, becoming one of a series of reinforcing elements that pit half the country against the other half.

Recently, in Tucson, Arizona, a sweet nine-year-old girl named Christina Taylor Green was elected to her student council. Born on September 11, 2001, Christina was always a particularly welcome symbol of hope to her friends and family. Last Saturday, a neighbor invited Christina to meet Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and “see how democracy works.” Christina ended up murdered, shot in the chest.

We should cultivate a politics of civility, not because of the insane murderer but because we all want to show “how democracy works,” in Christina’s memory, to honor Gabrille Giffords’ lifework, and for our common good.

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FRANK RICH: Let Obama’s Reagan Revolution Begin:

Source: NYT, 1-8-11

…The present-day radicals donning Reagan drag, led by Sarah Palin, seem not to know, as Cannon writes, that their hero lurched “from excessive tax cuts to corrective tax increases disguised as tax reform” and “submitted eight unbalanced budgets to Congress in succession.” Reagan made no promise whatsoever of a balanced budget in the document that codified Reaganomics, his White House’s 281-page message to Congress in February 1981. The historian Gil Troy has calculated that spending on entitlement programs more than doubled on Reagan’s watch. America slid into debtor-nation status, and Americans “went from owing 16 cents for every dollar in national income in 1981” to owing 44 cents per dollar in 1988….

At this point the speed of our own halting recovery is not in the president’s hands. The ability to remake his style of leadership still is. But that makeover can come only from him, not from old Clinton hands in a reshuffled West Wing. Without it, the miracle of his Christmas resurrection could be over by Easter…. –

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Obama’s Choice of Daley Fits Mold for Embattled Presidents

Bringing in an outside critic to run his operation might help change the narrative of the presidency.

by Ben Adler, Newsweek, 1-6-11

President Obama listens as new White House Chief of Staff William Daley makes a statement in the East Room of the White House. J. Scott Applewhite / APPresident Obama listens as new Chief of Staff William Daley makes a statement in the East Room of the White House.

Bill Daley, whom President Obama has just named to be his new chief of staff, is a banker, former Commerce secretary under Bill Clinton, and the brother and son of Chicago mayors. This may sound like a fairly typical Obama appointment, but it is actually a significant shift. Daley, a centrist, has been publicly critical of the direction of the Democratic Party under Obama. In 2009 he wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post warning Democrats, “Either we plot a more moderate, centrist course or risk electoral disaster not just in the upcoming midterms but in many elections to come.” Last year he told The New York Times that the White House had “miscalculated” on health-care reform. “The election of ’08 sent a message that after 30 years of center-right governing, we had moved to center left—not left.” And when former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel asked Daley, the Midwest chairman of JPMorgan, to lend his support to financial regulations, which would have been a public-relations coup for the administration, Daley declined, saying he opposed the proposal.

Sure, Obama wants an emissary from the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party in a core strategic role. But Daley’s past harsh words could also help the ailing president. To bring in an external critic as chief of staff is an unusual move, but it is not unprecedented. Recent history shows that presidents have made such pivots at similar junctures, when they were politically embattled and seeking to recapture the political center or change the narrative of their presidency.

In 1987 Ronald Reagan replaced his chief of staff, Donald Regan, who had taken a lot of blame for the administration’s embarrassing Iran-contra scandal. Reagan brought in Howard Baker, the Republican Senate leader from Tennessee, a relative moderate. (Years earlier he had called Reagan’s supply-side tax policy “a riverboat gamble.”) “He reflected the more moderate wing of the GOP that felt Reagan had gone too far in his budgetary policies that were busting the deficit,” Julian Zelizer, an expert on American political history and professor at Princeton University, wrote in an email. “In this case, the criticism [Baker had made of Reagan’s policies] was in some ways a positive for his later appointment as chief of staff since it signaled that Reagan had moderated his views by bringing in someone who held different perspectives into his inner circle.”

Another analogy is Erskine Bowles, whom Bill Clinton tapped as chief of staff in 1997 during his period of “triangulation,” after the Democrats had suffered their massive defeat in the 1994 midterms, similar to what they endured this past November. Bowles brought many of the same qualities to the job that Daley will. “Clinton was turning to someone who was corporate, pragmatic, centrist—to signal his move to the center, and actually get there effectively,” says Gil Troy, an expert on the American presidency who teaches history at McGill University.
Of course, President Obama emphasized Daley’s experience rather than ideological convictions in announcing his appointment. In that light, the historical analogy is Ronald Reagan’s choice of James Baker as his first chief of staff in 1981. Baker had worked for President Gerald Ford in his bitter primary battle against Reagan in 1976 and had managed the campaign of Reagan’s primary rival, George H.W. Bush, in 1980. Baker could be said to come from the mainstream establishment wing of the party relative to Reagan’s conservative insurgency. But Reagan was not perceived as choosing Baker to signal an ideological shift, but just to take advantage of his managerial skills and political savvy. To the extent that President Obama’s perpetually grumpy liberal base perceives Daley’s appointment as fitting that mold, rather than as a directional pivot, it may dampen their criticism. Liberal standard-bearer Howard Dean, for example, praised Daley even while acknowledging their ideological differences.

While the progressive grassroots organization MoveOn.org has criticized the selection of Daley, liberal backlash has so far not been as dramatic as one might expect. Robert Kuttner, a fellow at Demos, a liberal think tank, and coeditor of The American Prospect magazine, who has frequently criticized the administration from the left, suggests that Obama may get a partial pass simply because liberals want to pick their battles. “I suspect that progressives are saving their fire for issues where they think they can actually have some influence, such as pressing Obama not to save on needlessly cutting Social Security benefits,” he told NEWSWEEK.

It is also possible that Daley’s selection will be packaged with choices that mollify liberals, since Larry Summers, another Wall Street–friendly centrist, just left his role as head of the National Economic Council. “Maybe appointing Daley frees up Larry Summers’s job for someone not Wall Street–connected, like Gene Sperling,” suggests Stephen Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution who served in the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations. (Sperling, the leading candidate for NEC chair, actually did some consulting for Goldman Sachs, but he is considered more liberal than Summers and most other potential replacements.)

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs tried to split the difference between highlighting and downplaying an ideological shift by telling NBC’s Chuck Todd on Thursday morning that Daley would be “new blood” and a “new voice.”

Of course, to Obama’s critics on the left and fans in the center, he has always been a cautious moderate anyway. “Daley is a Democratic centrist who believes that the center is where his party can thrive and win,” says Chester Pach, a history professor at Ohio University who has written histories of the Nixon, Reagan, and Lyndon Johnson presidencies. “It seems as if Obama has similar views. Maybe he’s come to that conclusion only since Nov. 2.”

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H-Diplo | ISSF
Roundtable, Volume II, No. 1 (2011)

A production of H-Diplo with the journals Security Studies,
International Security, Journal of Strategic Studies, and the
International Studies Association’s Security Studies Section (ISSS).

| http://www.issforum.org

Christopher Ball, H-Diplo/ISSF Managing and Commissioning Editor
Diane Labrosse, H-Diplo/ISSF Editor at Large
George Fujii, H-Diplo/ISSF Web and Production Editor

H-Diplo/ISSF Roundtable Review of Justin Vaïsse. Neoconservatism: The
Biography of a Movement. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press, 2010. ISBN: 9780674050518.
Published by H-Diplo/ISSF on 7 January 2011
Roundtable Editors: Diane Labrosse and Thomas Maddux
H-Diplo Web Production Editor: George Fujii and John Vurpillat
Commissioned for H-Diplo/ISSF by Thomas Maddux, California State
University, Northridge
Stable URL: http://www.h-net.org/~diplo/ISSF/PDF/ISSF-Roundtable-2-1.pdf


Introduction by Marc Trachtenberg, University of California at Los Angeles
Review by John Ehrman, Independent Historian
Review by Robert G. Kaufman, Pepperdine University
Review by Daniel Sargent, University of California, Berkeley
Review by Gil Troy, Department of History, McGill University
Author’s Response by Justin Vaïsse, The Brookings Institution
Copyright © 2010 H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online
H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for
nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to
the author, web location, date of publication, H-Diplo, and H-Net:
Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact
the H-Diplo Editors at h-diplo@h-net.msu.edu.

Introduction by Marc Trachtenberg, University of California at Los Angeles

Justin Vaïsse has emerged in recent years as perhaps the most perceptive
French analyst of current American politics and foreign policy. But he
is a historian by training, and in writing his book on neoconservative
movement, his primary goal was to understand the neoconservative
movement as a historical phenomenon. The book is not a polemic or a
journalistic account. It is a scholarly analysis, based not just on
published materials, but also on a series of interviews and on a good
deal of archival work, especially in the Rosenblatt papers at the
Johnson Library and in the papers of the Committee on the Present Danger
at the Hoover Institution.1 Given that sort of approach, Vaïsse, as John
Ehrman writes in his comment, is able to deal in a fair-minded way with
a topic that “seems to arouse great passions.” Robert Kaufman, the most
critical of the four reviewers here, basically agrees. Vaïsse, he notes,
“has raised the tone and the substance of the debate about who
neoconservatives are and what neoconservatism means.”

And as a trained historian, Vaïsse begins by raising a question about
change over time. “The original neoconservatism of the 1960s,” he points
out, “had nothing to do with the muscular assertion of American power or
with the promotion of democracy.” It took little interest in foreign
policy, and its central message was “to stress the limits on state
action.” But over the next forty years, the movement “transformed itself
so thoroughly as to become unrecognizable.” The focus shifted from
domestic to foreign policy; neoconservatism moved “from the left to the
right side of the political chessboard”; the movement “left the world of
sociologists and intellectuals for that of influence and power.” And
above all there was a dramatic change in political philosophy, from one
that stressed the limits on power to one based on the belief that
American power could bring about very fundamental political change in
the rest of the world, especially in the Middle East, and in particular
in Iraq. Who in the early years of the movement would have thought that
the movement would develop along those lines? “The idea,” says Vaïsse,
“that the federal government should take it upon itself to administer
and even democratize an unknown country of 25 million people 6,000 miles
from Washington, D.C., would have seemed absurd to the original
neoconservatives” (pp. 3-4). How then is that change to be understood?

He gets at the issue by tracing the development of the movement over
time. He breaks its history down into three periods—an approach that
makes sense to the reviewers: a first period, when a number of
intellectuals, associated above all with the journal The Public
Interest, were reacting to what were seen as the failures of the “war on
poverty”; a second period, when the neoconservatives became more
involved in politics and more interested in questions of foreign policy,
and especially the question of the interpretation of the Vietnam War;
and a third period, beginning around 1995, when the movement began to
emphasize the need for a quite assertive foreign policy. Vaïsse sees
here “three very different political and intellectual logics, loosely
related to one another” (p. 6). The continuity from period to period—or
at least from the first two to the third period—seems more institutional
than conceptual: the neoconservatives had set up a kind of
“counterestablishment,” a network of “like-minded magazines, think
tanks, committees, journalists, and intellectuals” which was the “real
source of power of the neoconservative movement over its three ages”
(pp. 203, 206, 267).

But what sort of power did the movement actually have? This is an
important issue for Vaïsse: “one of the aims of this book,” he says, “is
to show concretely how ideas take hold and spread to the point where
they influence political decisionmakers” (p. 20). He believes in
particular that Ronald Reagan’s “support for democratic forces around
the world” was “without a doubt due to specific neoconservative
influence” (p. 191). And he believes neoconservatism played a
major—although far from exclusive—role in shaping policy during the
George W. Bush period (pp. 13-15). The reviewers, by and large, do not
really disagree with that claim. Gil Troy especially sees the
neoconservatives as the “ideological and intellectual vanguard of the
Reagan Revolution”: “These are not Ivory Tower intellectuals. These
citizen-activists use their brain power to change the world.”

But as Daniel Sargent suggests at the end of his comment, the whole
question of the political impact of ideas is hard to get at: how, he
wonders, do we measure the impact of ideas “in relation to other
historical factors”? Certainly the neoconservatives themselves claimed
they had played a major role; Vaïsse gives a remarkable quotation from
Norman Podhoretz to that effect on p. 186. And more independent
observers sometimes argued along the same lines: “Without The Public
Interest, no Newt Gingrich,” George Will wrote (p. 205). But is it
really clear that Reagan’s foreign policy or even George W. Bush’s was
influenced in any fundamental way by neoconservative ideas?

To be sure, both presidents found certain neoconservative notions
congenial, but neither president saw the world exactly the same way that
the neoconservatives did. “There is no doubt,” Vaïsse says about Reagan,
“that the president shared the neoconservative sensibility, but there is
also no doubt that he had an antinuclear sensibility, and an evangelical
sensibility, and a pragmatic sensibility, and, above all, a politician’s
sensibility” (p. 195); the neoconservative Reagan coexisted with “other
Reagans” who took a less hard-line view (p. 196). Bush, he says, was
“not a neoconservative,” although he “did incorporate numerous
neoconservative ideas into an ‘astonishing ideological cocktail,’” which
had many other important ingredients (p. 14).2 And both presidents, as
time went on, tended to separate themselves from the neoconservatives.
Reagan switched from a “bellicose policy to a policy of peace” (p. 197).
As for Bush, although his “rhetoric became increasingly neoconservative
in his second term, in fact he moved more toward realism and to all
intents and purposes abandoned the ‘freedom agenda’ that he had
previously promoted” (p. 258).

What then does this imply about the impact of neoconservatism as a
political movement? Reagan might have believed in promoting the spread
of democracy abroad, but such notions (as Sargent points out) have deep
roots in American political culture, especially at the level of public
rhetoric. The United States, after all, went to war in 1917 “to make the
world safe for democracy”—or at least that was the way U.S. policy was
rationalized after the country got involved in that conflict. What was
new, above all in the post-Cold War period, was not the Wilsonianism,
but the military component, a point Vaïsse has no trouble recognizing.
(On p. 12, he quotes Pierre Hassner’s phrase about a “Wilsonianism in
boots,” a play on the French notion of Napoleon as the “Revolution in
boots,”and a term that calls to mind Arthur Schlesinger’s reference to
the neoconservatives as “Wilsonians with machine guns.”3) But if the
core ideology is a constant, doesn’t that suggest that it is the shift
in the global balance of power, resulting from the collapse of the
Soviet Union, and not any great conceptual breakthrough, that
essentially accounts for the emergence of what people call a
neoconservative foreign policy? That certainly is the way neorealists
like Kenneth Waltz interpret the change in U.S. policy that took place
after 1991. The United States during the post–cold war period, Waltz
argued even before George W. Bush came to power, “has behaved as
unchecked powers have usually done. In the absence of counterweights, a
country’s internal impulses prevail, whether fueled by liberal or by
other urges.”4

So the argument that neoconservative ideas played a key role in shaping
American foreign policy is by no means intuitively obvious, and to make
an argument in this area, it seems to me, one really has to make an
argument about the ideas themselves—that is, one has to make a judgment
about the intellectual quality, the intellectual distinctiveness, and
indeed the intellectual power of the basic notions that lay at the heart
of the neoconservative movement. And while Vaïsse clearly has a high
regard for the neoconservatives of the first age, he takes a much less
positive view of neoconservatism from the late Reagan period on. He sees
a movement “frozen in time” (p. 197), locked at the end of the Cold War
into a mindset that prevented many neoconservatives from understanding
the extraordinary changes then taking place in the world. His judgment
of the third-age neoconservatives is particularly sharp: they are
arrogant, both intellectually and politically, especially with regard to
the Middle East (p. 261); they are dogmatic and intellectually lazy (p.
265). What one had, therefore, was scarcely a case of brainpower
changing the world. And indeed it seems that what Vaïsse really thinks
is that it was not the power of the neoconservatives’ ideas, but rather
their organizational ability—the network of institutions they were able
to create and their skill in moving into the Republican power
structure—that largely accounts for whatever influence they came to have.

And those assessments are linked to a series of judgments about the
policies the neoconservatives were associated with, to a certain extent
under Reagan, but much more under George W. Bush. Reagan succeeded with
Gorbachev not because he followed the neoconservative lead, but because
he parted company in his second term with people of that ilk. And Vaïsse
takes a dim view of the Bush presidency, and especially of those aspects
of the Bush policy linked most closely to the neoconservatives: “Bush’s
failure in Iraq,” in particular, was also “the failure of
neoconservatism” (pp. 3, 260)—a view which Ehrman shares, but with which
Kaufman strongly disagrees.

But Vaïsse’s fundamental goal is not to sit in judgment on the
neoconservatives, and indeed this book is not just about a particular
political movement. Vaïsse’s interests are much broader than that. His
goal as a scholar is to understand American politics and American
society as a whole. A study of neoconservatism is a window into
something much broader, and this book shows that this sort of study
really can tell us something basic about “the way in which American
political society works” (p. 20).


Justin Vaïsse is a Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings
Institution and serves as the Director of research for its Center on the
United States and Europe. After a first stint at Brookings as a Visiting
Fellow (2002-2003), he worked as a special adviser for the French Policy
Planning Staff (2003-2007). A graduate of L’Ecole Normale Supérieure and
Sciences Po, he received his Agrégation in history in 1996 and his Ph.D.
in 2005. He has been successively a teaching assistant at Harvard
University (1996-1997), an adjunct professor at Sciences Po (1999-2001
and 2003-2007), and a professorial lecturer at SAIS – Johns Hopkins
University (since 2007). He is the author of numerous books on US
foreign policy, including Washington et le monde: Dilemmes d’une
superpuissance, with Pierre Hassner (Paris: Autrement, 2003). He is
currently working on a group biography of four Harvard students of the
1950s who transformed US foreign policy (Zbigniew Brzezinski, Stanley
Hoffmann, Sam Huntington and Henry Kissinger).

John Ehrman is an independent historian. He earned a bachelor’s degree
in history and political science at Tufts University, a master’s in
international affairs from Columbia University, and his PhD from the
George Washington University. He is the author of The Rise of
Neoconservatism (Yale, 1995), and The Eighties: America in the Age of
Reagan (Yale, 2005), as well as numerous articles and reviews on modern
American conservatism.

Robert G. Kaufman is Professor at Pepperdine University’s School of
Public Policy. He received his BA and PhD from Columbia University and
his JD at Georgtown. He has written three books: Arms Control During the
Pre-Nuclear Era(Columbia University Press); Henry M. Jackson, a Life in
Politics(University of Washington Press); and In Defense of The Bush
Doctrine (University Press of Kentucky). He is working on two book
projects, the most immediate of which is A Tale of Two America’s: Ronald
Reagan, Barak Obama, and the Future of American Politics. He also is
working on a more long-term book project: A biography of Ronald Reagan
focusing on his Presidency and his quest for it. Kaufman has written
frequently for scholarly and popular publications, and done commentary
on television and radio.

Daniel Sargent is Assistant Professor of History at the University of
California, Berkeley. He graduated with a PhD in International History
from Harvard University in 2008. He is a co-editor of The Shock of the
Global: The 1970s in Perspective (Harvard, 2010) and is currently
working on a history of American responses to globalization in the
1970s, provisionally titled “A Superpower Transformed: Globalization and
the Crisis of American Foreign Policy in the 1970s” (Oxford University
Press, Forthcoming).

Marc Trachtenberg got his Ph.D. in history from Berkeley in 1974, taught
history at the University of Pennsylvania for the next twenty-six years,
and has been a professor of political science at UCLA since 2000. He is
the author of a number of books and articles on twentieth century
international politics, most notably A Constructed Peace: The Making of
the European Settlement, 1945-1963, which came out in 1999. His book The
Craft of International History, a guide to historical method for both
historians and political scientists, was published in 2006.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a
visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC. A
graduate of Harvard University, he is the author of six books on the
modern presidency, including Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan
Invented the 1980s, The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction and
Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.


1 The sources are listed not in the book itself but in a website the
author posted as a companion to the original French version of the book:
http://neoconservatisme.vaisse.net/doku.php. That website also has an
extensive analysis of the pamphlets put out by the Committee on the
Present Danger. The companion website for the English-language version
of the book, http://neoconservatism.vaisse.net/doku.php, does not have
that material, but it does contain copies of a number of important
documents Vaïsse cited in the book.
2 The internal quotation is from a book on the neoconservatives by Alain
Frachon and Daniel Vernet published in Paris in 2004.
3 Pierre Hassner, “Etats-Unis: l’empire de la force ou la force de
l’empire?” Institute for Security Studies, Cahiers de Chaillot, no. 54
(September 2002) (http://www.iss.europa.eu/uploads/media/chai54f.pdf ),
p. 43. Vaïsse and Hassner, incidentally, co-authored a short book called
Washington et le monde: dilemmes d’une superpuissance (Paris: Autrement,
4 Kenneth Waltz, “Structural Realism after the Cold War,” International
Security 25, no. 1 (summer 2000), p. 24.

Review by Gil Troy, Department of History, McGill University

If Neoconservatives have been the black sheep of the Reagan Revolution
since the Iraq war debacle, they have been wayward children
historiographically for much longer. The term “neoconservative” has been
around for nearly half a century, suggesting that these conservatives
are not all that “neo” or new to conservatism after all. But as Justin
Vaïsse notes in his thought-provoking new book, the fog is so thick
around Neconservatism’s origins, definitions, and character that even
the person who supposedly coined the term, Michael Harrington, used the
label in a different context than legend suggests. Vaïsse’s great
contribution to the discussion comes when he resists the urge to boil
down the movement to one essential characteristic or crusade. Instead,
with a good historical sense, he defines “three ages of
neoconservatism,” which he labels the times of: “Liberal Intellectuals
in Dissent,” “Cold War Democrats in Dissent,” and “National Greatness

In many ways, the debate about what neoconservatism is and was parallels
the raging historiographical debate about the nature of Progressivism.
For nearly a century now, historians have been dueling about that late
nineteenth-century, early-twentieth-century, reform movement, impulse,
moment. The first draft of the analysis, written by Progressives
themselves, internalized and romanticized the Progressive narrative. In
his multi-volume classic, Main Currents in American Thought, the
Progressive author Vernon Parrington described all of American history
as divided between haves and have-nots, while lionizing his fellow
Progressives for fighting the good fight in favor of the have-nots.
Subsequently, as interpretations multiplied, the definitions blurred. In
the 1950s, the historian Richard Hofstadter went sociological, defining
Progressives in The Age of Reform as up-and-coming urbanites allied with
fading Brahmin elites suffering from status anxiety. In the 1960s,
Gabriel Kolko went ideological and critical, describing the Progressive
movement in The Triumph of Conservatism as the march of the “haves,”
with big businesses seeking stability and a welcoming environment for
political capitalism. By 2005, in A Fierce Discontent Michael McGerr
went spectral, tracking the various Progressive impulses that helped
shape the twentieth century, while for many of America’s elites,
Progressive simply became shorthand for a good person and a political
idealist. [1]

Similarly, for years, the discussion about neoconservatism began and
often ended with the quip of one of its founders, Irving Kristol, that a
conservative is a liberal who has been “mugged by reality.” (p. 275)
Neoconservatives defined themselves – and were mostly defined – as
refugees from the 1960s, ex-radicals, and ex-liberals who saw the light
as the New Left succumbed to the forces of darkness and nihilism.
Simultaneously – not sequentially – neoconservatism was defined
sociologically as a mostly urban Jewish movement, with the
neoconservative poster children being those refugees from the immigrant
ghettos of New York and New York’s City College who both succeeded
professionally and traveled ideologically, as Kristol did, from left to
right. As the legends about neoconservatism’s power grew, and the
inevitable backlash began, critics spoke ominously about
neoconservativism’s reach, until, during the George W. Bush
administration, “neoconservative” was popular Democratic shorthand for
pro-Israel, pro-Iraq war, aggressive imperialist insiders who seduced
George W. Bush and derailed America.

As popular disdain – at least on the left – for neoconservatism grew –
the phenomenon itself seemed fuzzier. A movement that initially seemed
most concerned with domestic affairs was now defined by its foreign
policy. A movement rooted in New York’s rhythms, ambitions, obsessions,
pretensions and grit, had shifted its center of gravity to the sanitized
whiteness and power games of Washington, DC. A movement founded and
first defined publicly by Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Daniel Patrick
Moynihan, and Jeane Kirkpatrick was now led and defined by their
intellectual offspring, sometimes quite literally their children as with
William Kristol. And a movement that was part of the surge of confidence
during the Reagan era now seemed mired in the pessimism of the George W.
Bush-Barack Obama years. In fact, the character of the movement can seem
so elusive, that even after 271 pages Justin Vaise still admits:
“neoconservatism is such a diverse thing that the term has always been
close to meaningless.” (p. 271)

In truth, Vaïsse’s organizing principle for the book and for
understanding the movement contradicts this defeatist remark. His three
phases are well-defined and convincing. The first, “Liberal
Intellectuals in Dissent,” portrays the first wave of neoconservatives
in flight from the Sixties radicals, in despair over America’s crisis of
confidence, and in doubt that either scholarship or policy can solve
America’s problems. The second stage, “Cold War Democrats in Dissent,”
shows the growing concern with foreign at the expense of domestic
policy, with a particular focus on the threat posed by the Soviet Union
in the 1970s despite talk of detente. Finally, the new wave of
neoconservatives emerged as “National Greatness Conservatives,” fusing
traditionally liberal Wilsonian idealism with the post-9/11 conservative
patriotism of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush.

Along the way, Vaïsse deftly navigates through the thicket of myths and
facts regarding neoconservatives. He slays the Straussian dragon,
showing that the impact of the philosopher Leo Strauss often has been
exaggerated. Some neoconservatives were Strauss’s students, even his
protégés. But many other neoconservatives had many other, more
significant, influences. Similarly, Vaïsse shows that the caricature of
neonconservatives as hawkish Likudniks advancing Israel’s interests is
exaggerated. Vaïsse reveals that not all neoconservatives were Jewish
and not all Jews were neoconservatives. He should have added a
corollary, and explored the fact that, nevertheless, most Jews who
became Republicans were neoconservatives. More broadly, during and just
before the Reagan Revolution, neoconservatism served as the great
outpatient clinic for disappointed Democrats, helping them find a way
into Republicanism and Reaganism without feeling that they were
violating core ideals or their fundamental identities. Neoconservatives
let Democrats, intellectuals, cosmopolitans, and Jews into the
Republican Party without having to join the Chamber of Commerce, belong
to a country club, conquer Wall Street, or wear docksiders.

Vaïsse, like the movement itself whose “biography” he is recounting,
sometimes gets bogged down in the inside baseball of the neocons and
their allies. The acronyms fly fast and furious, in unconscious homage
to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal alphabet soup and the Left’s
hyper-factionalist compulsion to found splinter groups during the 1930s
and 1940s.

For all his good work, Vaïsse disappoints at the end, succumbing to the
definitional essentialism the rest of his book shows is too sweeping and
simplistic. Insisting that neoconservatism will remain a player on the
national scene, he argues that “neoconservatism is fundamentally a
manifestation of patriotism or even nationalism.” (p. 279) This
conclusion is akin to writing a book about Christianity and saying it is
fundamentally about belief in God. Yes, there is an up-beat nationalism
shaping the neoconservative worldview. But nationalism in America takes
on many forms. There is the don’t-tread-on-me nationalism of Tea Party
activists, the-with-me-or-against-me nationalism of Fox News, the
supremacist nationalism of white militants, the messianic nationalism of
evangelicals, the multicultural nationalism of Barack Obama, the
up-with-democracy internationalist nationalism of the Wilsonians and the
universalist do-gooders, the pragmatic nationalism of the Clintons. In
short, if Vaïsse wants his definition of neoconservatism to hinge on
nationalism, he needs to find the right adjectives to narrow the term
and give it some bite.

Vaïsse’s ultimately generic conclusion reflects a broader methodological
miss. He spends more time burrowing deep into the movement’s factions
and internal tiffs without investing enough in connecting
neoconservatism to other major movements of the time, especially
Reaganism. In the index, the entry for Ronald Reagan takes up slight
less space than the entry for Penn Kemble. Placing neoconservatism in
its broader context would yield two helpful conclusions. First, the
three ideas which define Vaïsse’s phases are three of the bigger ideas
that have shaped modern conservatism. With their focus on the limits of
the Great Society and social policy, the need for a muscular skepticism
vis-à-vis Soviet Communism, and the desire to fight terrorism with an
expansive democratic ideology as well as an aggressive military stance,
neoconservatives have in been the ideological and intellectual vanguard
of the Reagan Revolution. They have been the leading Big Government
conservatives, far less obsessed with shrinking the budget or cutting
taxes but far more concerned with the quest for national greatness.

Second and related, they have developed and disseminated these ideas
through an elaborate institutional infrastructure of think tanks,
conferences, ad hoc advocacy groups, journals, articles and books. All
these define the movement as intellectual, creating a conservative
alternate universe to the more left-leaning academic world. To
neoconservatives, development and dissemination have been equally
important and defining. These are not Ivory Tower intellectuals. These
citizen-activists use their brain power to change the world. They
believe that if an intellectual tree falls in the policy forest and no
one hears it, the silence is real and negates the effort. They are, and
always have been, a particularly self-conscious and exhibitionist group
of intellectuals, reading the public, seeking popular appeal, working
the corridors of power, securing access and getting either acclaim or
notoriety but always attention. Just as Progressives were ultimately
defined by their vision of national reform and their mode – their heavy
reliance on experts, commissions, and rationalizing structures –
neoconservatives can be defined by their vision of American greatness
and their mode – their commitment to their pragmatically-oriented,
policy-obsessed, publicity-hungry, intellectual hothouses producing big
The biggest headline is that these ideas and institutions have gotten
traction, especially in the two-term presidencies of Ronald Reagan and
George W. Bush. The neoconservatives were not the only intellectuals of
the Reagan Revolution, but, in many ways, they were the paradigmatic
intellectuals of this era, which may or may not have ended. The
fuzziness with both the neoconservatives and their Progressive
predecessors is a mark of integrity and impact. Complex movements,
ideas, and impulses which matter will take on different forms. They make
their mark in various, sometimes contradictory, ways.

These days, with the growing caricature by Obama supporters of
Republicans as ignorant, impatient, and intolerant, perhaps
neoconservatism will begin its fourth phase. Distancing the movement
from the unrealistic and premature Wilsonian triumphalism of the Iraq
War, neoconservatives can emerge as the intellectual Republicans, the
muscular nationalists seeking American greatness from the red-side of
the great, often-overstated modern American divide. Judging from the
analysis developed in the book, they have the think tank infrastructure
and an army of smart, ambitious, savvy game players poised to do just
that. And they have just enough common threads intellectually and
ideologically to weave a product that will perpetuate their brand, with
their logo, as usual, most prominently and cleverly displayed.


1 Vernon Parrington, Main Currents In American Thought, vols I-III (New
York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1927); Richard Hofstadter, The Age of
Reform (New York: Vintage, 1955, 1960); Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of
Conservatism: A Reintepretation of American History 1900-1916 (New York:
The Free Press, 1963): Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and
Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920 (Oxford
University Press, 2005).

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By Gil Troy, The Montreal Gazette, 1-4-11

It was the year of leaks, both oil and Wiki, plus seeping support for Obama and unrest in Europe and the Mideast

Workers remove oil booms from the beach after reaching the coast of South Pass, south of Venice, Louisiana, as oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead continues to spread in the Gulf of Mexico, May 5, 2010.

Photograph by: Carlos Barria, Reuters

Good riddance to 2010 – not only because the calendar gods decree it, but because so many of us were so fed up with it.

Fortunately no historic cataclysm occurred that will jump off the page of future textbooks. Instead, it was a year of slogging through, of feeling drained. It featured major leaks, notably the British Petroleum oil leak and the diplomatic tsunami of WikiLeaks. During 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama’s support and standing continued to seep away. And 2010 witnessed trouble brewing in the United States and Europe, as the prolonged recession drained individuals’ morale, family finances, and communal energies.

The spectacular Deepwater Horizon explosion, and its ensuing oil gush, represented yet another spectacular failure brought to you by the corporate and government structures supposed to keep our world safe. Pictures of poisoned waters, ruined aquatic life and devastated coasts, were heartbreaking -and terrifying. This perfect environmental storm epitomized the high ecological price we pay for our oil addiction, and the humbling human impotence we see sometimes when technological failure begets natural disaster.

True, in less perfectionist, more trusting, times, we could have focused on the heroic, ingenious efforts to cap the underground geyser and clean up the oil spill. Accidents happen. But in our current collective cultural mood, headlines alternated between caricaturing the BP folks as greedy polluters of precious waters and Obamaadministration officials as reprising the George W. Bush administration’s follies following Hurricane Katrina.

The WikiLeaks release represented a different kind of breach -but yet another assault on our confidence in corporate and governmental structures. Once again we learned that the Internet expands our reach while shrinking our zone of privacy. While no particular diplomatic bombshell caused serious damage, the cumulative impact of so many secret documents so easily revealed humiliated the United States. Mostly the documents caught diplomats in the act of being diplomatic -which in kindergarten we called lying. It was embarrassing for Arab states to be caught worrying about Iran going nuclear, for the United States to be caught minimizing those concerns to pressure Israel on settlements, and for the U.S. State Department to be caught blurring the line between diplomacy and spying.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange claims to be nobly illuminating the dark recesses of modern governments. His simplistic and self-serving view somehow did not stop him from protesting when Sweden leaked details about his legal problems. Citizens have a right to know many things -not everything – about one another and about their own state. Even democratic governments need some arenas of discretion to protect the public, in every era with enemies and especially in an era with shadowy terrorist enemies.

The more BP’s oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico, fouling the atmosphere, and the more WikiLeaks’ documents leaked into the blogosphere, fouling the diplomatic environment, the more confidence in Barack Obama seeped away. The U.S. midterm elections in 2010 illustrated Obama’s plummet in public esteem from his euphoric election in November 2008 to his “shellacking” in 2010. But unlike Bush, who never recovered from the Katrina debacle when New Orleans flooded, or president Gerald Ford, who never recovered from the backlash against his pardoning Richard Nixon, there was no one dramatic moment when millions of Americans broke with Obama. Instead, it was a drip, drip, drip. Support seeped away gradually but steadily as the economy languished, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars continued, Iran and North Korea flexed their muscles, Obama relied too much on the left-leaning congressional barons in Nancy Pelosi’s Democraticcontrolled legislature, and Obama failed to excite Americans with his vision of governance.

It is premature to predict whether Obama will win reelection in 2012. But so far as president he has failed to replicate the post-partisan, broad-based magic he conjured in 2008. This is a shame, because Americans and the world could use a dose of hope and faith in incumbent leaders.

Instead, a generalized crankiness festered, as bad faith brewed in many pockets of the Western world. In 2010, student protests in Greece, in Italy and in Britain often turned violent. In the U.S., the trouble brewing was more subtle, expressed in a generalized malaise rather than incendiary outbursts. But the low-grade fever of low expectations threatens democracy, especially America’s upbeat, go-getting political culture. Of course, false hope is no better than dashed hopes. Americans – and many others in the Western world -yearn for serious statesmanship offering concrete solutions to the ongoing economic crisis.

On the whole, Canadians had much less to complain about than their neighbours in 2010. Despite Canadians’ characteristic low profile, the phrase “Canada is the new America” gained traction. This, Canadian patriots please note, is meant as a compliment, celebrating the Canadian dollar’s strength, Canadian banks’ stability, and Canadian politics’ relative calm amid the tumult of the Bush and Obama presidencies.

It is a lovely, constructive illusion that we start a new year with a clean slate. But just as millions of individuals make resolutions to tackle personal shortcomings, nations can resolve to tackle communal challenges. In shaping 2011, unexpected disasters like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will erupt. The true test of political leadership, communal grit and a better year will come from solving the persistent problems, which for Barack Obama still involves ending two wars, jump-starting an economy, and, now, reassuring Americans that “yes we can” was a path to real progress, not an empty, ultimately disillusioning and disempowering slogan. May 2011 be a year of plugging leaks, stopping seeps, and brewing hope, witnessing personal and communal revivals economically, politically and ideologically.

Gil Troy teaches history at McGill University.

© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette

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By Gil Troy, The Toronto Star, 1-4-11

Jimmy Carter’s smile looks forced while applauding Edward Kennedy at the 1980 Democratic convention.


While much of the discussion since U.S. President Barack Obama’s “shellacking” in the 2010 congressional midterm elections has focused on the Republican surge, Obama also should worry about his base. In the last 50 years, the only incumbent presidents who have lost their re-election bids first faced primary challenges for renomination. In short, Obama better worry about his own party before dealing with the Tea Party.

Although in the age of modern communications the power of any incumbent is considerable, the American president’s powers are particularly formidable. By being both the head of state and head of government, in effect the king and the prime minister, the president can tap all kinds of non-partisan patriotic emotions while monopolizing the airwaves and using political muscle. During the Christmas season, for example, as the president hosts thousands of influential Americans in the White House, as he lights the national Christmas tree and calls for national unity, he serves as the high priest of America’s civic religion, transcending mundane partisan concerns.

So it is difficult — and has always been wrenching — to fire a president. In the 20th century, only five incumbents lost re-election bids, and in the last half century, it occurred only three times. Each time it required a major crisis and a serious insurgency, whereby someone with purer ideological credentials from the president’s own party first weakened the incumbent before the general election.

In 1976, president Gerald Ford knew his position was weak. He was the first vice-president in American history to replace the first president ever to have resigned, Richard Nixon. Furthermore, he had been the first vice-president never to have faced the national electorate, having replaced a disgraced vice-president, Spiro Agnew, under the terms of the new 25th Amendment, which had only been ratified in 1967. Before then, vice-presidents were not replaced and, when necessary, the speaker of the House became the president’s designated successor. Moreover, in the 1974 midterm congressional elections, just weeks after Ford became president in August of 1974, his Republican party had imploded, losing 48 House seats and five Senate seats. Americans punished the Republicans as the party of Watergate, shorthand for all the scandals that forced Nixon from office.

Although Ford was a decent and honest man, his short tenure already had been very rocky. His pardon of Nixon dissipated much of the goodwill with which Americans had greeted him; the collapse of South Vietnam humiliated Americans; and soaring inflation devastated individual Americans’ household budgets. Going into their 1976 bicentennial year, Americans were cranky. Republicans worried that their weakened incumbent would follow in the footsteps of two other Republicans who lost their re-election bids, William Howard Taft in 1912 and Herbert Hoover in 1932.

Still, amid all the troubles, what most harmed Ford was the campaign mounted by a fellow Republican, Ronald Reagan. Reagan ran to Ford’s right, exploiting growing frustrations with détente (the policy of engaging with the Soviet Union and China) and a broader sense that Ford was not committed to core conservative ideals. Reagan took advantage of the fact that partisans are often the most motivated to vote in primaries — general elections usually reward centrism more than partisanship. Reagan’s attack imposed the primary double-whammy on Ford. The president was weakened by having to fight Reagan primary by primary — and had to shift right to compete with Reagan for partisan Republicans. As a result, it was easier for the smiling, elusive Democratic nominee, Jimmy Carter, to paint Ford as a weak leader out of step with the American public.

Four years later, Carter was the one in trouble. The inflation rate was even higher — as Americans endured the new phenomenon of “stagflation,” whereby prices rose even as the economy flagged. Carter was a weak leader, urging Americans to adjust to limits. Conservatives hated him for this defeatism. Liberals hated him because they considered him the most conservative Democrat since Grover Cleveland, pushing to deregulate the economy and balance the budget.

Carter’s standing with party regulars and liberals sank so low that the crown prince of the Democratic party, senator Ted Kennedy, decided to run for the nomination. Kennedy’s candidacy was ill-fated. When a sympathetic interviewer, Roger Mudd, asked why he was running, Kennedy rambled. When radical Islamist students overran the American embassy and held 52 diplomats hostage in November 1979, just as the nomination campaign was starting, Americans initially rallied around their president in an instinctive patriotic reaction.

Eventually, Kennedy found his footing, winning the important New York primary. Kennedy failed to win the Democratic nomination, but at the party’s national convention he upstaged Carter. Kennedy’s passionate endorsement of the welfare state, vowing “the dream shall never die” in a speech that became an instant classic, captured Democratic hearts. At the same time, it helped Carter’s general election opponent, Ronald Reagan, define Carter as yet another liberal to a nation increasingly fed up with liberalism’s failures.

In 1984, Reagan broke the emerging presidential losing streak, winning re-election with his upbeat “Morning in America” campaign. Reagan had no real opposition from his fellow Republicans in the primaries. His Democratic opponent Walter Mondale floundered, with the economy finally booming after the traumatic, inflation-wracked Ford-Carter years.

Reagan’s vice-president, George H.W. Bush, essentially inherited the presidency after Reagan’s two terms. But Reaganite conservatives always doubted Bush. They remembered how Bush opposed Reagan in the 1980 primaries, mocking their cherished tax-cutting, budget-shrinking “supply side” theories as “voodoo economics.” They mistrusted Bush as too Yankee, too Connecticut, too establishment. To placate the right, Bush proclaimed at the 1988 Republican convention: “Read my lips: no new taxes.” When, governing responsibly, Bush broke that vow two years later, conservatives broke with Bush. The conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan ran against the president for the 1992 Republican nomination.

Buchanan’s candidacy was far weaker than Reagan’s in 1976 or Kennedy’s in 1980. Still, Buchanan’s impressive showing in the New Hampshire primary with 38 per cent of the vote, and his own fire-breathing convention oration, helped derail Bush’s campaign. Arkansas governor Bill Clinton’s campaign shrewdly emphasized that “it’s the economy stupid.” Still, the Buchanan candidacy helped confirm Clinton’s argument that Bush was a weakened incumbent too tied to the exhausted and discredited Reaganite right.

A few weeks ago, on Dec. 4, with Democrats still reeling from their midterm losses, the Washington Post ran an op-ed from a progressive fed up with Obama’s “spinelessness,” pleading: “Save Obama’s Presidency by Challenging Him on the Left.” The writer, Michael Lerner, overestimated the left’s popularity and misread his history. Such an insurgency would threaten Obama’s tenure not prolong it.

Lerner’s voice is marginal but the fact that the influential Washington Post ran his article demonstrated just how far Obama has sunk since the magical days of his election back in November 2008. For that reason, Obama and his aides will have to use some of the sharp-elbow tactics they mastered in Chicago politics to try squelching any potential Democratic opponents to Obama’s renomination, such as Congressman Dennis Kucinich or former Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold.

Exit polls after the 2010 midterm congressional elections showed that Obama has lost most ground with the independents who helped elect him in 2008. Obama should shift to the centre over the next two years, governing more as the post-partisan moderate he promised to be rather than the liberal partner to the liberal-Democratic congressional leadership he often has been. A liberal challenge in the primaries would force Obama to play to his left, undermining that effort.

The Ford-Carter-Bush losses also offer Obama another cautionary tale. It really is “the economy, stupid.” Americans tend to give presidents too much credit when the economy booms and too much blame when the economy sags. Seeing the stock market or employment figures or inflation rates as a referendum on a president is natural but simplistic. Government policies and presidential economic strategies affect the economy, but so do many other factors. The broader economic cycle reflects a stunning array of inputs, that neither the president nor any other individual can control fully. If the economy revives, even as late as 2012, Obama will have bragging rights to his own Reagan-style “Morning in America.” Even most Americans’ judgment of the complex health-care reform, which will barely be kicking in by then, will be determined by the state of the economy.

History is instructive not predictive. Still, it is hard to see how Obama could lose if the economy is booming and his party is united. And it is hard to see Obama winning if the economy remains depressed, Democrats are deeply divided, and Republicans find a candidate who is popular, credible and effective.

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and the author of, among others, Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.

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