Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Bill Clinton’

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, HNN, 1-19-12

After months of debating, fundraising, positioning, posturing, and polling, America’s Republican candidates are finally facing the voters – with Election Day still nearly ten months away. As always, there is much to mock. But despite its flaws, America’s electoral system is working, managing a complicated, intense, continent-wide conversation among millions of voters seeking a leader.

Admittedly, the Iowa-New Hampshire con  is absurd, with two, small, unrepresentative states starting the voting process earlier and earlier so they can be first in the nation. Both political parties foolishly enable this childish behavior. And yes, the Republican debates often seem more like Bart Simpson versus Sponge Bob than Abraham Lincoln versus Stephen Douglas. The most memorable moment so far from hours of talking by America’s aspiring chief executives has been Texas Governor Rick Perry’s excruciating “brain freeze,” when he could not remember the third federal agency he wanted eliminated, culminating with his now infamous “Oops.”  But this year, especially, the electoral system is not the issue – the frustrations come from the historical context and the candidates themselves.

This election comes at a particularly unhappy moment in American life. The economy has languished for nearly four years.  As during all recessions, Americans fear the downturn is permanent, forgetting the business cycle’s resilience while losing faith in their economy and themselves. The last decade has been clouded by fears of terrorism and the petty harassments at airports and elsewhere from living in a lockdown society. Americans overlook George W. Bush’s greatest achievement, which is a non-achievement — there were no successor attacks on American soil to the 9/11 mass murders. The war in Afghanistan still festers, the withdrawal from Iraq was joyless, even Barack Obama’s triumph in greenlighting the daring operation that killed Osama Bin Laden, brought only temporary relief. It was the dulled enjoyment of a chronically ill patient who had a rare, good day, not the long-sought healing or closure.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama’s upbeat, historic, transformational, “Yes We Can” candidacy has bogged down in the muck of amateur-hour governing, producing a weary, spasmodic, sobering, “Maybe We Can’t” presidency. Obama has now appointed his third-and-a-half chief of staff in three-years. Most recently, the now-retiring chief of staff William Daley shared duties, after his first demotion, with Pete Rouse.

Amid this depressing context, the Republicans promising to rescue America have been more empty suits than white knights, super-cranks not superheroes. The front-runner, Mitt Romney, has been a Ford Escort-kind of candidate, competent enough but not exciting, rolling along smoothly yet frequently stuck in neutral. He has yet to generate the kind of excitement Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1992 each needed to unseat an incumbent president.  Different Romney rivals have successively zoomed ahead sporadically only to crash, sputter, or run out of gas.

Underlying the theatrics and personality questions is a serious referendum about the Republican Party’s character. Romney appears to be the most reasonable, presentable, electable candidate. Voters looking for an anybody-but-Obama candidate should rally around Romney, as the Republicans’ best chance to recapture the White House.  The other candidates – especially now that Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry quit – are ideologues, representing doctrinaire strains within the Republican Party.  Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, in particular, hold fringe views.  In a general campaign, Democrats and the media would easily caricature either as yahoos, while Newt Gingrich remains an unguided conversational missile, who has now been tagged by his ex-wife as an advocate of “open marriage.”

The surges of the Santorum and Paul campaigns demonstrate that in the US today, a growing gap separates fundamentalist provincials and cosmopolitan moderates. The extremes are diverging, submerging the center.  Ron Paul’s libertarianism and Rick Santorum’s fundamentalism epitomize the reddest of the red state sensibility, which is deeply alien to the New York-California East Coast-West Coast blue state sensibility.  In an age of niche media – to each his or her own Facebook page and shrill corner of the Blogosphere — members of each social, cultural, political fragment in a society can have their own echo chamber. As they whip each other into self-referential frenzies, and as the headline-driven media amplify their shouts, they drown out the increasingly silent majority, making it harder to forge a common, constructive social, cultural and political conversation.  Of course, the primary campaigns in particular favor the shrill partisans. General election campaigns often help candidates find the center as they woo swing voters.

So let the games begin. As the Republicans battle it out, it will be interesting to see whether Mitt Romney’s safe, lowest common denominator politics wins, or Republicans turn to an edgier, pricklier candidate. And as Republicans pummel one another, President Barack Obama will be watching from the sidelines but trying not to get sidelined.  Hovering above the fray is nice but Obama cannot afford to be too removed – he is too vulnerable and risks irrelevance.

Republicans seek a new Reagan –a Republican upstart who unseated President Jimmy Carter in 1980.  Democrats should be hoping for 1996 Redux, when a flawed, unpopular Democratic incumbent, Bill Clinton, was blessed by an even more flawed, less popular Republican challenger, Bob Dole. For Obama, even winning by default will represent an historic, and possibly redemptive, achievement, as Clinton learned.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, HNN, 1-12-12

A crisis is looming for political reporters desperate for a drawn out, dramatic presidential campaign.  Republican voters may be less crazy and more predictable than the conventional wisdom suggests.  If Mitt Romney continues his winning streak because Republicans realize he is the most electable candidate, we might have a much abbreviated presidential nominating season thanks to voters making a rational, non-doctrinaire decision.

Anxious to keep things going, programmed for conflict, reporters have tried to place a big asterisk on Romney’s New Hampshire victory, warning that the emergence of Republicans criticizing his time at Bain Capital proves that in the week he won Romney also witnessed that which will guarantee his loss to President Barack Obama in November.  History suggests otherwise.  Hashing the issue out now just might inoculate Romney against succumbing to the attack in the general election.

The historical analogy most worrying to the Romney camp comes from the 1988 campaign, when George H.W. Bush decided to “go negative” after discovering he trailed behind Michael Dukakis by 17 points in the polls and was saddled with a “negative rating” of 40 percent, twice that of his opponent. In a move that would become legendary in the annals of political consultants, Bush’s campaign director Lee Atwater gave his director of research James Pinkerton a three-by-five card and said:  “You get the stuff to beat this little bastard and put it on this three-by-five card.”  One of the negatives Pinkerton discovered was an issue Al Gore had raised during the Democratic primary campaign—the prison furlough program that enabled a convicted murderer to rape a woman and terrorize her fiancée—and the devastating Willie Horton attack ad followed.

But there’s a flip side to this tale.  In both 1992 and 2008, primary attacks against Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, as unpleasant as they were during the time, ended up being defused by the general election.  In 1992 the Gennifer Flowers adultery allegations and the Vietnam draft dodging charge had largely lost their sting by the Democratic Convention.  In 2008 Barack Obama brilliantly dispatched the Jeremiah Wright problem in March, so that it was not much of a factor in the fall.

In fact, John Kerry might have become president in 2004 had his primary opponents done a better job of attacking him more viciously.  When Kerry ran for the Democratic nomination in 2004, he ran as a war hero and was treated as such.  The Republicans “Swift Boated” him effectively during the general campaign, turning his war record into a liability.  Had Democrats tried that tack during the primary, Kerry might have been able to pull the patriot card on them and deflected the attack—just as Romney has to continue pulling the capitalist card on Republican critics, to squelch the criticism and try to unite his party behind free market values.

The Swift Boat campaign could inspire a great attack and a great defense on the Bain Consulting issue.  The Swift Boat campaign was so effective because the attackers mobilized dozen of fellow veterans, who stood there condemning Kerry.  If I were running against Romney, I would look to get as many individual, heartbreaking stories of job loss on tape, and then try to get as many of his victims as I could together in a room for a day of melodramatic, tear-jerking filming.  If I were running Romney’s, I would look to get as many individual, heartwarming stories of job creation on tape, and then try to get as many of his beneficiaries as I could together in a room for a day of melodramatic tear-jerking, filming.

Romney has to look at these attacks as opportunities—to preempt attacks that might appear again from Democrats and to strut his stuff, as they say. Attack ads are sometimes just what a candidate needs to come to life.  Romney has to demonstrate that he is winning these primaries because of his skills and vision, and not simply backing into the nomination, if indeed, he is “the one.”

Read Full Post »

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, NYT, 12-2-11

To select someone worthy of sitting in George Washington’s chair, sleeping in Abraham Lincoln’s bed and governing from Franklin Roosevelt’s desk, Americans crave a substantial presidential campaign, as long as they don’t have to endure too many boring speeches. Like every human decision-making process, presidential campaigns seesaw between the serious and the silly.

Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience, political science and the dismal science demonstrate what we know intuitively, that human decision-making involves our heads and our hearts. We are neither fully rational nor totally emotional. Similarly, campaigns fluctuate between profound policy exchanges and trivial personality clashes, between significant indicators of future presidential performance and serious idiocy.

A substantial campaign is most likely when history conspires to offer high stakes with stark choices or an incumbent seeks reelection (and it helps if the candidates avoid defining gaffes or temper tantrums). Re-election campaigns in particular are usually well-focused, because at least one nominee presents a defined track record.

The 2012 campaign seems primed to be portentous, with an embattled incumbent confronting an opponent from an ideologically-charged party amid economic turmoil. But every campaign, no matter how high-minded, flirts daily with farce. “Unfortunately, when you run for the presidency your wife’s hair or your hair or something else always becomes of major significance,” John F. Kennedy said, when Walter Cronkite asked about his forelock. “I don’t think it’s a great issue, though, in 1960.” Actually, the Kennedys’ good looks brought John Kennedy great political luck.

Hair has been the subject of political debate for Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, just as it was for John F. Kennedy, right.
Jim Watson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images, left; Associated PressHair has been the subject of political debate for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, just as it was for John F. Kennedy, right.

The first substantial presidential campaign — which brought about America’s first transition from a ruling party to the opposition — also teetered between frivolity and philosophy. An ugly brawl between two founding fathers preceded the great deadlock of 1800, which you may remember hearing about during the election standoff in 2000. Federalists called Vice President Thomas Jefferson an atheist, a libertine, a traitor, “the infidel.” Democratic-Republicans called the short, fat pompous president, John Adams, “His Rotundity.” But the election also contrasted Adams’ centralized government championing industrial development against Jefferson’s vision of limited government with limited growth.

The 1800 election was the first to show how presidential re-election campaigns crystallize issues and polarize positions. A challenger need not be as doctrinaire as Barry Goldwater to offer “a choice not an echo,” when pitting boundless hopes against a first-term president’s adjustments to reality. Running for re-election in 1936, Franklin Roosevelt admitted there would be only one issue: “It’s myself, and people must either be for me or against me.” Running a referendum on Roosevelt, the Republican candidate, Alfred M. Landon, called himself “the direct antithesis of the present executive.”

Winners beware, though. The binary choice most American elections offer frequently overstates differences and oversimplifies results, especially when presidents win re-election. Most of the twentieth-century’s most lopsided wins kept incumbents like Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in power, but frequently helped spawn the dreaded second-term curse.

Campaigns fluctuate between profound policy exchanges and trivial personality clashes, between significant indicators of future presidential performance and serious idiocy.

Even landslides do not offer the political equivalent of a blank check, however much it might feel that way. Roosevelt overstepped during his second term, especially when he tried packing the Supreme Court. He wrongly interpreted his 523-8 electoral-vote triumph as a more sweeping mandate for his New Deal than voters intended. Lyndon Johnson went from feeling, “for the first time in all my life,” truly “loved by the American people,” marveling at “millions upon millions of people, each one marking my name on their ballot, each one wanting me as their president,” to being hounded out of office.

Sometimes campaigns turn serious by coinciding with serious trouble, especially impending wars, ongoing hostilities or economic busts. Voters in 1860, in choosing Abraham Lincoln, knew that they were empowering abolitionists and risking war. Four years later, a worried President Lincoln needed battlefield victories to woo voters who were doubting him and his war. Ultimately, bullets swayed the ballots as General William T. Sherman’s conquest of Atlanta two months before Election Day helped vindicate Lincoln’s war strategy, leading to his re-election.

While wartime campaigns often become votes of confidence — or no confidence — regarding the incumbent, the downswing in an American business cycle often yields an upswing in surprisingly theoretical, intensely polemical, debates about American capitalism. During a recession, suddenly everyone is an economics major — or a philosopher.  The Panic of 1893 triggered 1896’s “Battle of the Standards.” Americans escalated arcane questions about valuing paper money, silver coins and gold into a searing philosophical divide that stirred fears of civil war. The major parties nominated candidates with contrasting stands. Converting from currency to morality, William McKinley, the Republican goldbug, said “The American people hold the financial honor of our country as sacred as our flag.” And catapulting from economics to metaphysics, William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic-Populist silverbug defending “the producing masses of this nation and the world” famously cried: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” One Republican, John Hay, moaned: “The whole country has been set to talking about coinage — a matter utterly unfit for public discussion.”

Still, good intentions and clear visions do not guarantee Solomonic deliberations. In 1964, insisting that “I’m not one of those baby-kissing, hand-shaking, blintz-eating candidates,” Senator Barry Goldwater envisioned a “lofty, rational presentation of contending beliefs” against President Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater loved his campaign slogan:  “In your heart, you know he’s right.” But with Democrats sneering “In your guts, you know he’s nuts,” and his numbers tanking, Goldwater retaliated. By October he was snarling “Would you buy a used car from Lyndon?” and saying all Johnson did was “lie and lie and lie” — although the patriotic senator recoiled when crowds, riled by his rhetoric, booed the president. Time magazine deemed the 1964 campaign “one of the most disappointing ever.”

Just as ideologues can end up mudslinging, moderates do not necessarily sling mush. Mocking moderates is a great American tradition. Some, like Lewis Cass, the Democrats’ compromise nominee in 1848, earn the contempt. As Americans polarized over slavery, Cass ran as a “doughface,” a Northern man who molded his politics to satisfy Southerners, impressing few, alienating many. “And he who still for Cass can be,” one Whig wrote, “he is a Cass without the C.”

America also enjoys a rich tradition of muscular moderates. Barack Obama has already shown he can run an exciting, crisp campaign from the center. In 2008, both parties nominated centrist senators seeking the swing voters who could sway the election. These crucial voters, like the Reagan Democrats and the Clinton soccer moms before them, made a clear choice, this time for Obama. Interestingly, even though both Obama and John McCain played to the center, they clashed on foreign affairs, economic policy and governing philosophy, and in the process they offered voters two quite distinct alternatives.

President Barack Obama, left, was accused of being an atheist, as was Thomas Jefferson, right.
Pool photo by Kevin Dietsch, left; United Press International, right President Barack Obama, left, was accused of being an atheist, as was Thomas Jefferson, right.

The history of presidential campaigning reveals the ingredients that yield substantial campaigns, including a charged historical context, clashing world views and coherent candidacies.  Still, every candidate remains one slip of the tongue, one gotcha question, one feeding frenzy, away from the chaos that overwhelms so many campaigns. Americans genuinely yearn for an ideal democratic exercise, one-part university seminar, one-part town hall. Yet the blood rushes, the pulse quickens, interest peaks, when campaigning turns ugly, emotional, personal. The contradictions of popular politics, meaning mass democratic decision-making, don’t just mirror but magnify our all-too-human contradictions as personal decision-makers.



Gil Troy, professor of history at McGill University, is the editor, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred Israel, of “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008,” fourth edition.

Read Full Post »

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, New York Times, 11-6-11

There we go again. After nonstop headlines a year before Election Day and nine debates between the Republican candidates (number 10 is scheduled to take place on Wednesday in Michigan), Americans are already grumbling that the 2012 presidential campaign is ugly and interminable. But these quadrennial complaints about campaigning miss the point.  Presidential campaigns are nasty, long and expensive because they should be. Many aspects of campaigns that Americans hate reflect democratic ideals we love.

The presidential campaign’s length and fury are proportional to the electorate’s size and the presidency’s importance.  A new president should undergo a rigorous, countrywide, marathon job interview. Citizens need time to scrutinize the candidates. As David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s senior strategist, puts it: “Campaigns are like an MRI for the soul, whoever you are eventually people find out.” Already this year, “easy favorites” like Tim Pawlenty fizzled, while Rick Perry learned that years governing Texas do not provide as much political seasoning as weeks of presidential campaigning. Mitt Romney, his aides admit, worked out his campaigning “kinks” in 2008.  That year, Sarah Palin’s popularity waned while Barack Obama’s soared, the more each campaigned.

These nationwide courting rituals should be long enough to let great politicians flourish and bond with the nation. John F. Kennedy became a better president and person by encountering Appalachian poverty during the 1960 West Virginia Democratic primary. During his 18,009 mile, 600-speech campaign in 1896, the Populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan insisted that voters “have a right to know where I stand on public questions.” Franklin D. Roosevelt’s strategist advised his candidate in 1932 in strikingly modern terms: “You are you,” he said, and “have the faculty of making friends on a campaign tour.” Traditionally, candidates repeated stump speeches so frequently that, as Herbert Hoover noted, “paragraphs could be polished up, epigrams used again and again, and eloquence invented by repeated tryouts.”

A campaign is the defining democratic exercise for a country founded on the consent of the governed. Since the Jacksonian Democratic revolution against elitism in the 1820s, each revolution democratizing American life further popularized the campaign.  Democracy trumped dignity; mass politics required mass appeals that frequently became protracted, vulgar brawls.

Like automotive crash tests, nasty campaigns determine a potential president’s strength and durability.

Popular candidates stopped being passive kings-to-be, becoming active, articulate, prime-ministers-in-formation, introducing themselves to the people, who wanted to vet their leaders. Most Americans still yearned for George Washington’s dignified silence, even as they cheered candidates engaging in what Hubert Humphrey would later call “armpit politics,” intense and intimate.  In 1840, William Henry Harrison explained that “appearing among my fellow citizens” was the “only way to disprove” rivals’ libels that he was a “caged simpleton.” Similarly, in 1948, a century later, President Harry Truman traveled to California to give the locals a chance to examine him in person. “I had better come out and let you look at me to see whether I am the kind of fellow they say I am,” he said.

Like automotive crash tests, nasty campaigns determine a potential president’s strength and durability. George H.W. Bush deflected ridicule in 1988 as a “wimp,” a “weenie” and “every woman’s first husband,” by mudslinging. “Two things voters have to know about you,” his aide Roger Ailes advised. “You can take a punch and you can throw a punch.”

Alternatively, a well-placed blow can pulverize a vulnerable candidacy. Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, a ferociously partisan Democrat, twice devastated Republican contender Thomas Dewey. First, in 1940, Ickes said the 38-year-old New Yorker had “thrown his diaper into the ring.” Ickes was also popularly credited with suggesting four years later that the dapper, mustachioed Dewey looked “like the groom on the wedding cake.” Both barbs stuck, crystallizing concerns about Dewey.

Voters oversimplify, viewing presidential campaigns as presidential dress rehearsals. After Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory, the defeated Vice President Dan Quayle predicted:  “If he runs the country as well as he ran the campaign, we’ll be all right.” Actually, campaigns are auditions for certain aspects of the job. Although the contrast between Barack Obama as candidate and as president suggests that great campaigners do not always make great presidents, every great president must now be a great campaigner first.

Campaign budgets reflect the time candidates require to capture attention across America’s continental expanse. Candidates compete against the din of modern life, not just against each other. Considering that Procter & Gamble spent $8.7 billion in 2008 peddling detergents and razors, spending $4.3 billion for the 2008 campaign appears a reasonable price to pay for democracy.

The time and money invested pay off because campaigns matter. The stakes in elections are high, the outcomes often in doubt. Despite frequently feeling powerless in modern America, voters can make history. The George W. Bush-Al Gore deadlock in 2000 reminded Americans that in close elections, old-fashioned civics teachers were proved right: every vote counts. When Truman upset Dewey in 1948, the St. Louis Star-Times saluted unpredictability as an “essential part of freedom.”

Ronald Reagan used his four presidential runs in 1968, 1976, 1980 and 1984 to become a better candidate – and the Great Communicator. He relished voters’ sweaty handshakes, sloppy kisses, hearty backslaps and soaring hopes, explaining simply, “I happen to like people.”  Reagan instinctively understood the Progressive philosopher John Dewey’s teaching that “democracy begins in conversation.”  That conversation can turn ridiculous, raucous or tedious, but it serves as both safety valve and social salve. Presidential campaigns historically have had happy endings, with America’s leader legitimized by the open, rollicking process.

So, yes, campaigns are excessive, part old-fashioned carnival and part modern reality show. But in these extraordinary, extended democratic conversations, a country of more than 300 million citizens chooses a leader peacefully, popularly and surprisingly efficiently. As Reagan told Iowans during his costly, nasty, lengthy – but successful – 1984 campaign, “It’s a good idea – and it’s the American way.”



Gil Troy, professor of history at McGill University, is the editor, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred Israel, of “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008,” fourth edition, just released by Facts on File of Infobase Publishing.

Read Full Post »

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, 8-4-11

Barack Obama turns fifty today, August 4th.  Both he and his country appear battered these days, as Obama’s White House recuperates from the bruising debt ceiling showdown and the United States remains stuck combating two wars along with one long-lasting recession.  But the progress Obama and America have made since 1961 is extraordinary—and should remind Obama, along with other doubters, that it is premature to count out America.

The United States into which Barack Obama was born in 1961 was deeply segregated due to an endemic, seemingly unchangeable racism, and profoundly scared due to an implacable, seemingly indestructible foe, the Soviet Union.  Just days before young Obama’s birth, on July 25, President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation about the growing showdown in Berlin, warning that the United States would go to war, even nuclear war if necessary, to stop the Soviets from overrunning West Berlin.  Nine days after Obama’s birth, on August 13, the Soviets began building the Wall dividing Berlin which would symbolize the Cold War stalemate for the next three decades.

Obama was also born into a world still shellshocked by World War II and the Holocaust—in Israel, Adolph Eichmann’s trial for crimes against humanity was winding down.  Demographers count Obama as a Baby Boomer, part of the population explosion and surge in family building that began in 1946 when more than 16 million American GIs began demobilizing.  And it is sobering to compare America’s family stability, traditional values, and communal interconnectedness in 1961 with today’s age of disposable relationships, indulgent impulses, and self-involvement.  Still, Obama is not a classic Baby Boomer, like Bill and Hillary Clinton.  He was too young to watch Howdy Doody as a child, too young to draft-dodge or fight in Vietnam, too young to march for civil rights, too young to lie about having been at Woodstock—in 1969 when he was nine.  Instead Obama, and his wife Michelle, watched the Brady Bunch when they were kids—it was Michelle’s favorite show—and came of age politically during Ronald Reagan’s 1980s.

Becoming an adult in the Reagan era—Reagan became president in 1981 when Obama was twenty—Obama learned from liberalism’s excesses in the 1960s.  In his book Audacity of Hope, Obama shows a sensitivity to cultural forces that his politically-obsessed Baby Boomer elders lacked.  He saw the failures of the Great Society, economically, politically, culturally.  He learned the limits of liberalism and Big Government, discovering that politics cannot shape everything, that culture, tradition, patriotism, religion, community matter.  Yet, as a product of the politically correct 1980s—and by the late 1980s Harvard Law School at the height of PC-mania—Obama absorbed a series of assumptions that continue to color his worldview.  Domestically, the intense opposition to Ronald Reagan caricatured the Republican Party as the party of greed, corporate America as more irresponsible than innovative, and white male culture as bitter and bigoted.  Regarding foreign policy, the fights against nuclear proliferation, South African apartheid, and Reagan’s policies in Central America, crystallized biases against American power and in favor of the Third World, even as Reagan’s military resurgence helped bankrupt the Soviet Union, leading to America’s victory in the once-seemingly unwinnable Cold War.

This mishmash of impulses, recoiling from classic Sixties liberalism and the Reagan counter-revolution, explains some of the paradoxes and blindspots in Obama’s presidency so far.  He can infuriate his liberal allies by accepting budget cuts, and by championing moderation, because he saw in 1980, 1984, and 1988 how addictions to liberal orthodoxy killed Democratic presidential prospects.  But by blaming the financial crash on corporate greed and Republican deregulation, without acknowledging Democratic culpability in demanding easy access to mortgages, he could fill his team with Clinton-era retreads who helped trigger the crisis, and, when pressured, resorts to a politics of petulance and finger-pointing that belies his more moderate impulses. In dealing with the world, his PC-politics explain his apologias for America’s alleged sins, his unconscionable preference for an illusory engagement with Mahmound Ahmadinejad rather than bravely endorsing freedom when Iranian dissidents first rebelled, his instinctive sympathy for the Palestinians, his inexplicable dithering on the Syrian file, and his penchant for disappointing American allies.  At the same time, he learned enough from Reagan’s assertiveness, and was traumatized enough a decade ago during September 11th, that he has given the kill order when confronting pirates at sea, intensified the technique of assassination by drone aircraft, reinforced America’s presence in Afghanistan, and hunted down Osama Bin Laden unapologetically.

The poet T.S. Eliot called the years between fifty and seventy “the hardest” because “You are always being asked to do things, and yet you are not decrepit enough to turn them down.”  For the next year and a half, and possibly for the next five and a half years, Barack Obama will be asked to do heroic things, daily, lacking the luxury of refusing most requests.  When he started campaigning for the presidency, had he anticipated how devastated the U.S. economy would be, he would have shorted the market.  Instead, he has had a much tougher slog in office than he ever anticipated.  As he passes his personal milestone, and anticipates his re-election campaign, he should reflect on all the changes America has experienced in his brief lifetime.  In particular, communism’s defeat, and racism’s retreat, along with the dazzling array of technological miracles Americans engineered, should remind him of America’s extraordinary adaptability, steering him toward a more Reaganite faith in the American people and American nationalism, and away from his current, Jimmy Carteresque doubts about Americans and their ability to continue to prosper and to lead the world.

Read Full Post »

By Gil Troy, Institute for Research on Public Policy’s Policy Options, Oct. 2010

The United States has traveled a long way from the euphoria of Election Night, 2008 to the crankiness of the 2010 midterm elections. Even President Barack Obama’s most ardent supporters agree that the turnaround in popular support he has experienced has been dramatic, unprecedented, unnerving, The “Yes We Can” Candidate of 2008 – who seemingly could do no wrong – is now seen by millions as the President who can do no right leading a sobered “No We Can’t” citizenry, many of whom have lost jobs, lost hope for the future, and lost faith in the man who seemed so promising as a leader just two years ago. Here is Barack Obama’s challenge. He is not only confronting two wars, one ongoing economic mess, and countless other cultural, social, diplomatic, ideological and political crises. He is not only being measured against the Presidents who preceded him, some of whom are encased in legend, setting stratospheric standards for any worthy successor. He is also competing against himself and the impossibly high hopes his election unleashed.

It is still worth remembering Barack Obama’s shining moment in November 2008, even amid soaring unemployment, the Afghanistan quagmire, tea party demagoguery, anger over the deficits, anxiety about the new health care legislation, fear of renewed Islamist terrorism, and Fox News shout-show host Glenn Beck’s attempt to hijack the civil rights legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. The library of books published about Obama’s brilliant 2008 presidential campaign all serve to remind us just how unlikely his victory was. Back in spring 2004, before his bombastic Democratic National Convention debut, few Americans had heard of this self-described, “skinny guy with a funny name.” And his name was so strange, that the first time in 2004 President George W. Bush saw a Democrat visiting the White House with an OBAMA button, Bush, genuinely confused, peered close and asked “Osama?” Moreover, no African-American had ever been elected President – and at the time, most people were quite sure that the Democratic nominee would be the first woman with a serious shot at becoming President of the United States, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The fact that Obama nevertheless won, and that his victory triggered a national orgy of high-fiving and fist-bumping, among rich and poor, Republicans and Democrats, Obamians and McCainiacs, blacks and whites, reminds us that national moods are variable – and that Americans in particular are the ever-believing people, constantly searching for salvation, perpetually primed to rally around a great white – or now black – hope. Great American leaders have always understood this addiction to redemption. That, frankly, was part of Obama’s appeal – and part of his plan. Obama surveyed the carnage of the George W. Bush presidency. He could have concluded then, as many are concluding now, that Americans had lost their capacity to believe. Bush had become the presidential master of disaster, mired in Iraq, buffeted by hurricane Katrina, mismanaging a teetering economy – which ultimately cratered just weeks before Election Day.

Yet Obama understood that Americans would respond to a message that they could do better, that their best days were not behind them, that America remained a land of promise. Obama successfully channeled Franklin D. Roosevelt’s promise in 1932, offering a New Deal to the American people. He eloquently evoked John F. Kennedy’s optimistic vision from the 1960s of a New Frontier. He echoed Jimmy Carter’s post-Vietnam and Watergate vows in 1976 of “I’ll never lie to you” and “why not the best?” He updated and broadened Ronald Reagan’s appealing dream of a Morning in America, making it Democratic, liberal, multicultural. And, like Bill Clinton in 1992 he became the “Man from Hope.” In both the bruising primary campaign against Hillary Rodham Clinton and in the general election campaign against John McCain, the man became the message, embodying Americans’ dreams. By simply electing Obama as the first African-American president, Americans could redeem themselves and their country, demonstrating their openmindedness, optimism, and faith in the future.

As Obama navigates through what is looking like a tough Congressional-midterm election season for Democrats, he should remember that both the volatility of the national mood and the credulity of the American public could redeem his presidency – or at least secure him a second term.  In fact, the three presidents he most models himself on – Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, and, believe it or not, Ronald Reagan – were shellacked in midterm elections before achieving convincing re-election victories.

While every modern president since Franklin Roosevelt has compared himself and been compared to Franklin Roosevelt, the attempts to link Roosevelt and Obama have been particularly intense. During the transition, Obama publicized the fact that he was reading up on Roosevelt’s famous, transformative first hundred days. That tidbit boosted the sales of Jonathan Alter’s book on the subject “The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.” Alter returned the favor in his recent book,  “The Promise: President Obama, Year One,” writing a more than 400-page valentine to the current chief executive – sprinkled with admiring comparisons between Obama and Roosevelt.

Beyond all this cozy Washington posturing, the comparison emphasizes the sobering economic conditions which greeted Roosevelt as well as Obama on their respective inauguration days, and the soaring ambitions both Democrats brought to the White House. Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said a crisis is a terrible thing to waste;  indeed Obama has governed by that motto. In pushing through a health care reform bill, along with dozens of other, significant, reforms, Obama has revealed his desire to be the most consequential president since Franklin Roosevelt.

Unlike Obama, Roosevelt was able to shape more of a mandate for change in his first term. Both Obama and Roosevelt were blessed to succeed unpopular and failed predecessors. But it has become clear that Obama basically won a GO-George election – a Get Out George W. Bush contest. His plummeting polls suggest that Americans are not looking for an updated New Deal. Many of Obama’s reforms have worried the public. Most dramatically, of course, Obama’s challenge remains “the economy, stupid.” For all his creativity, despite many legislative accomplishments, Obama is still saddled with a listing economy, and devastatingly high unemployment figures.

Obama can only look back and envy Roosevelt’s experiences in the 1934 midterm elections, which Roosevelt and the Democrats cleverly turned into a referendum on Roosevelt and the New Deal.  Rallying around their confident, creative new President, American voters gave him a mandate for change. Nine new Democratic senators were elected, giving Democrats 69 of the 100 senators, and nine new Democrats added to the already-strong majority of 313 in the House of Representatives. By contrast, polls suggest, Obama and the Democrats in 2010 are working hard to hold onto the Senate and may not even secure a bare majority in the House.

Obama might learn by looking at the 1938 midterm elections, which routed Roosevelt and the Democrats. After Roosevelt won re-election in 1936 by strong margins too, he  — and his fellow liberals — overstepped. The New Republic called Roosevelt’s re-election victory “the greatest revolution in our political history.” The liberal political writer Max Lerner rhapsodized: “Mr. Roosevelt is now, as never before, a colossus bestriding the American world.”

Believing his press clippings, feeling overconfident, Roosevelt tried packing the Supreme Court by adding one new justice for each justice over 70-years-old, to a maximum of 15 (from the traditional nine). Americans saw this as an affront to the Constitution, and the proposal failed.  Unbowed, Roosevelt then put his muscle behind a number of challengers to conservative Democrats, especially in the South, who had been fighting the New Deal. Again, Roosevelt failed. In addition, Americans struggled through a renewed economic crisis as the Recession of 1937 to 1938 wiped out many of the gains some had enjoyed thanks to the launching of the New Deal. On Election Day, 1938, the Democrats lost seven seats in the Senate and a whopping 72 in the House.

Roosevelt learned from this debacle. He respected Americans’ constitutional conservatism and in the future usually fought party rivals with more subtlety and circumspection.  The brash, ambitious, statist, progressivism of 1935 and 1936, which produced the New Deal’s signature program, Social Security, evolved into a more cautious creed, which the historian Alan Brinkely labeled “the end of reform.” As a result, America’s welfare state would not follow the European model. Big Government, American style offers a hybrid of safety nets and spurs within a framework of capitalism, private property, sensitivity to budget deficits, constitutional caution and occasional rhetoric against Big Government. After the election, Roosevelt expected to retire to his Hyde Park estate, within two years, when his second term ended. However, the outbreak of World War II led to a movement to draft Roosevelt for a third term, and he not only complied, he managed the movement from behind the scenes.

No one wants a Hitler or Mussolini to rise on the world scene and help Obama win re-election. But a chastened president can sometimes be a more effective president. Thus far, Obama has been better at passing programs than selling them to the American people. He is like an athlete wracking up individual records without leading his team to victory. In the second half of his first term, Obama should go back to some of the fundamentals he mastered in the 2008 campaign. In running for president, Obama both tended to the grassroots and sang a song Americans applauded. His presidency has lacked both that common touch and that lyricism, even as he has amassed an impressive list of programs passed and reforms introduced.

The experience of Barack Obama’s Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, also proves that a chastened president can become a more responsive and popular leader. The excitement Obama generated in 2008 tended to make people forget just how much excitement Clinton generated in 1992. But when Bill Clinton first started wowing and wooing the American people during his campaign against George H.W. Bush, many Baby Boomers declared him their Kennedy, the first politician in a generation who could get hearts palpitating and hopes soaring. Clinton also entered the White House with great ambitions. But the economy was too good, people were too complacent, and he was too undisciplined to achieve what Obama has achieved programmatically. Nevertheless, Clinton’s failed health care reform, and his scattershot approach annoyed millions, triggering a backlash. In 1994, the Democrats lost eight Senate seats, 54 House seats and control of the Congress for the first time in forty years, since the days of Dwight Eisenhower.

Clinton was shell-shocked. Few Democrats had expected a loss on such a scale. The day after the election, Beltway Democrats seemed annoyed, indignant that the voters dared to remove them from their Congressional baronies. Clinton, both agile and ambitious, retooled, shifting rightward, even as he went into a tailspin. By April 1995, he was insisting plaintively, pathetically, “the President is still relevant here,” noting that “the Constitution” gave him relevance.

While Clinton’s return to the center, and to smaller, less ambitious, more digestible initiatives helped him restore his presidency, the turning point came shortly after his plaintive press conference when a twisted domestic terrorist, Timothy McVeigh, bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City. Clinton, America’s empath-in-chief, emerged as a leader. He struck the right tone, showing enough human vulnerability to help the nation mourn, while displaying enough presidential steeliness to help the nation move on.

Leaders – and particularly America’s presidents – are defined by such moments. George W. Bush may have won re-election with the simple gesture he made in the aftermath of September 11, when he hugged a rescue worker while reassuring Americans through a megaphone at Ground Zero. Similarly, he may have derailed his presidency by floundering – and not choreographing such a moment – during Hurricane Katrina.

Surprisingly, as President, Obama has not yet shown an ability to transform a moment of crisis into a defining moment, a lasting impression of effective leadership. The man who saved his presidential campaign from being derailed amid revelations that his preacher Jeremiah Wright was a racial demagogue by delivering an historic speech about race in America, has yet to master a similar moment as president.  The BP oil spill, the Fort Hood massacre, the failed terrorist bombing attempts on a jetliner and in Times Square, all offered opportunities which he failed to take.  Having used rhetoric so effectively during the campaign, having redefined a vision of liberal nationalism for the 21st century, as President, Obama has been surprisingly reticent to reprise that role – even as Americans are yearning for reassurance during this time of crisis.

Clinton eventually won re-election in 1996. Something else that helped him immensely – and may help Obama too – was his rivals’ utter impotence. So far, the Republicans have succeeded in criticizing the President but they have not found a leader who seems able to take on Obama. The Tea Party rebellion and the rise of Glenn Beck could help re-elect Barack Obama, making him appear as the mature candidate once again. In 1996, the Republican Party gave Clinton – and the Democrats – the gift of Bob Dole, unintentionally smoothing the way for Clinton’s victory.

Obama may be banking on following the trail of a Republican president, Ronald Reagan. In his book Audacity of Hope, Obama makes it clear that he watched Reagan carefully as President and admired his leadership abilities but not his ideology. During the primary campaign, Obama infuriated Hillary Rodham Clinton – and her husband – by praising Reagan as a transformational leader, while suggesting that Clinton’s little policy band-aids did not measure up. Like Obama, Reagan entered the White House during a time of economic crisis – and initially watched the numbers tank. Reagan’s dramatic assault on “big government” first looked like a big flop. By late 1981 and early 1982, Democrats were criticizing the “Reagan Recession,” and anticipating that Reagan and his Revolution would be a one-term wonder.

During the midterm elections of 1982, Republicans lost 26 seats in the House. “The stench of failure hangs over the Reagan White House,” the New York Times claimed at midterm. With unemployment high, national morale low, and the administration seemingly adrift, Reaganism was looking suspiciously like Carterism with the focused, class-bound anguish of unemployment substituting for the broadly shared pain of inflation. Two Democrats, former Vice President Walter Mondale and Senator John Glenn, defeated Reagan in presidential trial heats. The Washington Post columnist David Broder and others declared Reaganism dead.

Ultimately, the resilience of the American economy resurrected Reagan’s presidency. The former actor’s timing was impeccable. Coming on stage during an economic crisis, he watched it get worse, only to see the boom begin by 1983, in time for his 1984 re-election campaign. Reagan then framed the cyclical upswing as “Morning in America,” the vindication of Reaganomics, and his Revolution took off.

This time around, the American economy has lagged longer than many analysts expected. Still, even if it languishes for another year or year and a half, as long as it recovers in 2012 Obama will have bragging rights – and a strong shot at re-election.

Of course, not all Presidents who endured midterm losses have experienced a comeback. The Democrats under Jimmy Carter lost three Senate seats and 15 House seats during the 1978 midterm elections. Carter went on to lose the presidency to Ronald Reagan, amid high inflation, high interest rates and the great humiliation America endured during the prolonged Iranian hostage crisis. Like Obama, Carter had a meteoric rise from obscurity to the presidency. Like Obama, Carter was a golden boy who had always succeeded at everything he tried, until he entered the Oval Office. And like Obama, Carter was a thoughtful, bookish, earnest do-gooder who found it difficult to reassure Americans that America’s greatest days were still ahead.

Ironically, the great liberal lion Ted Kennedy helped trigger the Reagan Revolution by running against Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980. In fact, in the last half-century, the only Presidents who have lost re-election races entered after being bruised by a primary battle. George H. W. Bush in 1992 was weakened by Pat Buchanan. Carter was weakened by Kennedy in 1980. And Gerald Ford was weakened by Ronald Reagan. The single most important thing Obama needs to do to secure re-election is keep his party united behind him, as it is. The single most effective thing Republicans could do to weaken Obama would be to secretly support some leftwing Democratic dissident, a Ralph Nader, a Dennis Kucinich, who could somehow hurt Obama in a primary or two, thus puncturing his aura of invincibility while forcing Obama to swing left and lose the center.

From the start of his administration, Barack Obama’s presidency has paralleled both Ronald Reagan’s and Jimmy Carter’s paths. Many Obama critics see him replicating Jimmy Carter’s ways, wooing America’s enemies, neglecting America’s allies, telegraphing weakness at home and abroad. Obama, on the other hand, wants to be the Democratic Reagan, pressing the reset button on the Reagan Revolution, making government effective, relevant, and popular again.

History is not destiny. Barack Obama ultimately will follow his own path. But there is a reason why White House library shelves are crowded with presidential biographies. Presidents understand that there is much to  be learned by studying their predecessors’ successes and failures. The record shows that historical forces make a huge difference, be it the state of the economy, the actions of rivals, or the moves of foreign states. But each outside factor offers a president a leadership opportunity. Successful presidents are not lucky; but it does take great skill to turn dumb luck into lasting good fortune, as Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton frequently did.

Read Full Post »

By Gil Troy

(Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal. His latest book, co-authored with Vincent J. Cannato, is Living in the Eighties (Oxford University Press, 2010).)

News that Al Gore and Tipper Gore are separating after forty years of marriage has unnerved many.  Despite our collective cynicism, especially about celebrity marriages, this marriage was supposed to last.  This assumption was not based on believing the Gores were the ideal couple.  They had shared their struggles over the years with her depression, their clear personality differences, the trauma of having a six-year-old hit by a car.  But they paraded publicly for so long as exemplars of family values, they were so ostentatiously self-righteous about their rectitude, and he was just so flamboyantly square, that their “till-death-do-us-part marriage” had become part of the national furniture, taken for granted, relied upon, and now, conspicuously absent and sorely missed.

No one other than the Gores knows exactly what happened—and they, too, may not be completely sure.  Even marriages free of public scrutiny are icebergs, with the true foundations submerged:  some rock solid, some fragile.  Still, as national role models who frequently made their private lives public, their private trauma has public repercussions.

Since the 1980s, the Gores have been a totemic couple in the nation’s culture wars, baby boomers preaching that it was hip to be square.  In 1984, when Al Gore was a Democratic senator from Tennessee, Tipper Gore allied with another Washington spouse, Susan Baker, to crusade against popular culture’s immoral excesses.  Baker’s husband, James A. Baker III, was the Republican White House Chief of Staff, making for a formidable bipartisan alliance. Baker and Gore formed the Parents Music Resource Center, advancing proposals for voluntary labels on music records warning of excessive sexual content and violence.

These efforts triggered an intense backlash from Hollywood, with the two accused of being moralistic prudes.  Tipper Gore subsequently went out of her way to show how fun-loving she was, how with-it she was, emphasizing her love of the Rolling Stones, along with her disgust at music celebrating rape, misogyny, and other depravity.

Tipper Gore’s public image as chipper became even more important in 1992 when her husband became Bill Clinton’s running mate, because Al Gore was a stiff.  Silky smooth Bill Clinton could charm a snake out its skin, but he was as inconstant as he was charismatic. Earnest Al Gore stabilized the ticket – and the White House – during the roller coaster Clinton years.

Throughout the 1990s, as Bill and Hillary Clinton became the most dysfunctional couple in American politics, Al and Tipper Gore served as the counterbalance.  The Gores played the ever-wholesome Mike and Carol Brady of the “Brady Bunch” to Bill and Hillary Clinton’s Homer and Marge Simpson—a battling, mismatched duo who nevertheless stayed together.  During the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, the Gores appeared ever more self-righteous and stable as the Clintons appeared ever more estranged.  Al Gore even chose to telegraph to the American people that he was a passionate politician by giving Tipper a famously long smooch after his nomination.

The Gores’ obvious distaste for Bill Clinton’s extramarital escapades strained relations among the four.  During the 2000 campaign, Vice President Gore distanced himself so much from President Clinton that many observers believed he sacrificed his shot at the White House on the altar of his marital morality.

The Clintons and Gores had always competed with each other as contrasting symbols of the baby boom generation.  The Clintons usually nosed out the Gores as the more famous couple and the couple more buffeted by the turbulence of the sexual revolution, one of the baby boomers’ signature cultural contributions.  It is therefore ironic to see the Gores outdoing the Clintons by separating, considering that divorce is one of the ultimate, iconic baby boomer acts.

Representing the generation that created the disposable camera and disposable diapers, the Gores will now offer further proof that relationships are disposable too.  Divorce is not inevitable like death and taxes, but it is ubiquitous.  And while it is impossible to assess the private pain that precipitated this decision, it will feed cynicism about the stability of marriages.  The revelations about seemingly happy public couples like John and Elizabeth Edwards, like Tipper and Al Gore, make it harder to foster the traditional family values they championed so prominently then betrayed.

In my modern United States history courses, students have trouble fathoming how the public culture and passing trends shape the most intimate decisions affecting their lives, from the longevity of their parents’ marriages to their own decisions about sex.  In the 1970s, when Time and Newsweek ran cover stories celebrating the freedom individuals enjoyed by leaving their spouses, the divorce rate skyrocketed; in the 1990s, when the same publications ran cover stories charting divorce’s destructive impact on many children, divorce rates dipped.

Divorce is not always a worse option than remaining imprisoned in an unhappy marriage.  Few divorcees take this difficult step lightly.  And we are lucky to live in an era which enables men and women to move on to second, even third, acts in their lives when necessary.  Still, the buzz around the watercoolers as the articles about the Gore separation became among the day’s most emailed articles, suggests that while many like having divorce as an option when necessary, they also yearn for some role models who stay together, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, “till death do us part.”

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »