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By Gil Troy, HNN, 4-21-09

Countering America’s tradition of moderate, bipartisan presidential leadership is an equally vibrant tradition of moderate masqueraders, partisans obscuring their sharp political elbows with bipartisan rhetoric. In 1968, Richard Nixon now the “New Nixon,” ran to heal his fragmented nation. Six years later, Nixon resigned, his presidency derailed by his partisan overreaction to student protests which triggered the Watergate scandal. In 2000, George W. Bush promised to unite America, only to govern as a divisive president. One hundred days into his presidency, Barack Obama wavers. At his best, he has wooed Republicans, seeking a new, welcoming center for a nation reeling from economic cataclysm, continuing foreign threats and Bush’s tumultuous tenure. At his worst, President Obama has indulged Congressional Democrats and party sensibilities rather than offering the moderate statesmanship America needs.

The First Hundred Days is an artificial benchmark rooted in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Obama’s presidency is unfolding. John Kennedy proved more successful than his first hundred days suggested, marred as it was by the failed Bay of Pigs Cuban invasion; Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush ended their respective presidencies less successfully than each began. Still, a presidential character starts forming. The First Hundred Days launches many story lines that ultimately determine a president’s destiny.

President Obama’s debut has been less bold than he promised and, frankly, confusing. Regarding foreign policy, his rhetoric has veered left but his actions have stayed centrist. Domestically, his rhetoric has been more moderate than his policies.

Obama’s foreign affairs messaging has positioned him as the “unBush.” From apologizing for American “arrogance” in Europe to smiling with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez to denouncing torture, Obama has enraged conservatives. But Obama has not acted like the pushover he sometimes appears to be. He is keeping troops in Iraq. He has intensified the military push in Afghanistan. And he gave the shoot to kill order when Somali pirates held an American hostage.

At its best, Obama’s foreign policy has used George W. Bush as a straw man, to appear to be hitting the oft-mentioned “reset button,” without acting irresponsibly. Obama’s approach to the Durban anti-racism review conference exemplified his strategy. In sending diplomats to preliminary meetings, Obama showed he would engage the world, unlike his predecessor. By nevertheless boycotting because too many delegates from Muslim countries pushed their anti-Israel, anti-Western, and anti-free speech lines, Obama acted properly, but with greater credibility.

Ultimately, Obama must define his foreign policy more clearly. He will have to remind Muslims how many Americans died trying to protect Muslims in Kosovo, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than simply apologizing for Bush’s “war on terror.” And the Obama administration will have to find its moral center, rather than disappointing dissidents worldwide when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says human rights issues will not divide the United States and China. Still, this has been a clever, cautious start for a president with a thin foreign policy resume.

Obama’s greatest challenge has been righting America’s economic ship of state. Watching the confusion among our supposed experts, seeing how many very smart people made such a mess, the President probably is as baffled as the rest of us. Just as it is easy during boom times to forget that a bust may soon come, it is easy to forget downturns are cyclical and fleeting too. Of course, the President lacks the luxury of waiting it out. Obama argues that too little governmental response in the 1930s made matters worse – forgetting that too much governmental intervention in the 1970s was equally harmful.

Rhetorically, Obama has been thoughtful and reasonable. His April 14 speech at Georgetown was a model of moderate leadership. Acknowledging critics left and right, he sounded balanced, systematic and visionary. He invoked the Sermon on the Mount – not to perpetuate squishy liberal sentiments about helping others, but to explain the importance of rebuilding on firm foundations. He affirmed his liberalism by delineating new “pillars that will grow our economy and make this new century another American century,” including “new rules for Wall Street” and new investments in education, renewable energy and technology, and health care. But Obama showed he was a liberal who had learned from Ronald Reagan. He added a fifth pillar, “new savings in our federal budget” and insisted that like a good doctor, the government primarily must do no harm.

Unfortunately, on Capitol Hill and in practice Obama has been less artful. While he watched the Super Bowl with some Republicans, most Republicans resented how Democrats burdened the economic stimulus package with so many items that long lingered on Congressional wish lists. More broadly, Obama is trying to spend his way out of the recession with a classically Keynesian, big government approach. At Georgetown, Obama invoked Bush’s policies to justify his actions as centrist moves – even though conservatives criticized Bush’s big-spending deviation from Reaganite orthodoxy.

Given the economic bewilderment and despair, Obama is angling for a win-win. If the economy is not as broken as the conventional wisdom now suggests, all Obama needs is a recovery before 2012, which would be a very long recession. If the economy revives, he will replicate Ronald Reagan’s position in 1984, declaring a new “morning in America” that validates Obamanomics as he coasts to re-election.

Of course, much history could intrude between now and then, ruining this scenario. But considering the headaches he inherited, Obama is governing in the politically shrewdest way for him – shifting left while speaking reasonably domestically, then sounding more radical than he actually acts in foreign affairs. That strategy mirrors Ronald Reagan’s strategy in shrinking taxes but ultimately negotiating with the Soviet Union. Obama admires Reagan’s ability to transform the country. Clearly, Obama hopes he can do the same – in the opposite direction.

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by Gil Troy, Autumn 2008 Wilson Quarterly

Despite selecting two men known for their political civility as presidential nominees, Americans in the fall of 2008 have been enduring yet another nasty political contest. By September, both candidates could easily have sung along with Britney Spears, “Oops . . . I did it again.” A bit of historical perspective can soothe some of our discontents. The long-standing paradox of American presidential campaigning is that voters complain about political mudslinging but also respond to it. Repeatedly since Thomas Jefferson battled John Adams for the right to succeed George Washington, the Republic has survived partisan hysteria and citizen ­disappointment.

Yet the ugliness of public life somehow offends modern Americans more. Today’s festering unhappiness with politics is a product of the plummeting faith in politicians and political institutions that pollsters have tracked since the 1970s and the escalating spiral of cynicism and despair that has accompanied it. Intense partisanship among politicians, vicious political battles in the media, and nasty electoral campaigns coexist with extensive citizen apathy and pathetically low voter ­turnout.

By contrast, our political ancestors often approached the political game in better humor and with a closer attachment to political life. Political skirmishing involved citizens in at least the most basic acts of democracy, especially voting. But today, many Americans are bystanders left choking on the fumes of partisan combat. Our politics suffer from the paradox of strong partisanship combined with weak parties. Throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Americans did politics via their parties. Partisans regularly read party newspapers printed by partisan printers on party payrolls. During campaigns, partisans marched in party parades to hear party leaders exhort them to vote the party line. American politics’ many military metaphors—the standard-bearer rallied the troops, telling the rank-and-file that this was a do-or-die campaign—testified to this intensity of party activity, not just party affiliation.

Strong parties fostered political engagement. With most Americans living on farms or in very small towns, and even ­city ­dwellers residing in ­close-­knit neighborhoods, everyone knew who belonged to which party and, even more important, who could deliver the goods. Party officials were true community leaders, not strangers with fancy titles. And these leaders ­made good—­to reformers’ eternal frustration. The infamous “Boss” William Marcy Tweed of New York was typical. In the 1870s, Tweed busily lined his and his buddies’ pockets while also passing out constituent services personally and spectacularly, ranging from Christmas turkeys for the needy to roads, buildings, and parks to transform Manhattan.

Even the activities we mock ­today—­the torchlight parades and the florid ­oratory—­were community builders. They did not prevent mudslinging. But just as competition engenders a grudging mutual respect among political professionals, the widespread participation in party hijinks reinforced a shared commitment to America’s future. And especially after the Civil War put the ultimate polarizing issue of slavery to rest, unifying rituals after Election Day helped heal the community’s partisan wounds. In Delaware, citizens still celebrate the day after Election Day as “Return Day.” In some counties, rivals parade together and in others they bury a ceremonial hatchet. Especially in small-town America, the post-campaign reconciliation was as routine as the pre-election combat. These rituals, once widespread, restored civility by shifting everyone’s identity as active partisans to their more transcendent identity as patriotic Americans.

Since the rise of television in the 1950s, the media have become the central forum for American politicking, and increasingly today that role is being played by the blogosphere. With the blogger and the viewer replacing the pamphleteer and the parader, politicians focus on marketing themselves and their causes to passive consumers rather than mobilizing passionate soldiers. The new language of politics sounds like this: Spin doctors stage photo ops as pollsters survey voter preferences, spawning celebrity candidates. The old promise of a new kind of ­Internet-­based citizen politics now looks more and more like a mere marketing ploy. Far from reflecting true citizen engagement, the volume of online donations and the number of website hits have simply been converted into indexes of candidate ­popularity.

The rise of media politics has spawned a new breed of freelancing politicians who excel at demanding attention rather than working behind the scenes to get things done. These showboaters entertain or scare voters, often by affirming their common political identities. ­Problem ­solving invites reason, compromise, and, ultimately, mutual respect; ­identity ­building invites posturing, passion, and, ultimately, ­intolerance.

In the days of Rutherford Hayes and William McKinley, the parties loomed larger than individual politicians, who often seemed undistinguished and interchangeable. Matt Quay of Pennsylvania, Thomas Platt of New York, and other party bosses dominated local and national politics, bullying legislators and the blur of undistinguished bearded and mustachioed presidents between Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Thanks to the democratization of the parties, the last time bosses dictated a nomination was in 1952, when Adlai Stevenson became the surprise Democratic nominee. Such ­top-­down politicking would be almost unimaginable today. Earlier this year, when it appeared that the Democratic presidential primaries might not produce a clear victor, many party superdelegates were reluctant to make the party’s choice, even though that is precisely the role assigned them. It was a telling indicator of the parties’ weakness that Hillary Clinton, the favorite of the Democratic establishment, lost, while John McCain, noted for his deviations from party orthodoxy, won the GOP ­nomination.

Primary season highlights the parties’ debility, reducing them to the role of referee among contenders. Then the winner takes over the party structure, frequently installing new leaders while commandeering party fundraising lists. The nominees function much like new sheriffs who swagger into town and dominate the scene for a dramatic but fleeting moment rather than like local deputies who rise through the system and ­last.

Despite being less powerful and more responsive to public opinion, parties brimming with edge but lacking a mass membership base produce further division and alienation. Party links tend to serve as convenient labels rather than defining allegiances. The modern mix of culture and politics has made party identity combustible and polarizing. Fortunately, no single issue like slavery divides the nation. Americans are more “purple” than the red-blue narrative suggests. Still, the media showcases Chardonnay-sipping, New York Times–reading, pro-choice, pro–gay marriage, urban, progressive Democrats confronting beer-swilling, Rush Limbaugh­listening, pro-life, pro–traditional marriage, rural, conservative Republicans. It is Prius versus pickup, tennis versus NASCAR, Ivy League types versus state university grads and dropouts. The harsh fights reflect the rival groups’ disgust for each other, as well as the competition for swing voters who transcend the rigid paradigms and can tip elections, such as blue-collar suburban Catholics and well-educated soccer moms. Thanks to these divisions, the mid-20th century’s big-tent party coalitions, with Republicans including liberals such as Nelson Rockefeller of New York and Democrats including conservatives such as John Sparkman of Alabama, have vanished with the Rambler and the rotary phone.

Parties are now the political equivalent of professional sports teams. Individuals root themselves hoarse for their side, even occasionally confronting rival fans, but few save the pros actually play the game. Increasingly, parties seem less like armies of concerned citizens than coalitions of angry ideological and economic interest groups. While political scientists may hail the rise of intense partisanship as a spur to political activism, the interest-group jockeying only feeds the popular impression of politics as an insiders’ ­game.

At the same time, an increasingly odious money game pollutes the whole spectacle. Beyond branding, candidates most appreciate the party infrastructures as fundraising vehicles. In 2004 the presidential candidates raised more than $600 million, while the two parties raised an additional $1.2 billion for both the congressional and national campaigns, despite the ­McCain-­Feingold campaign finance reform limiting “soft” funds. Money has become an unavoidable preoccupation of modern politics, draining time and attention from the public’s business. Even incumbent senators estimate that they spend a third of their time ­fundraising—­which helps explain the influx into politics of multimillionaires who can finance their own ­campaigns.

So much money flows through the system that parties lose control. Independent political advocacy groups have proliferated to circumvent campaign finance laws limiting contributions and give extremists a voice. In 2004, these unregulated “527” organizations alone raised $400 million. The attack ads that renegade 527s produce so easily, and inject into the campaign narrative so effectively, such as the Willie Horton ads of 1988 and the Swift Boat ads of 2004, allow forces formally distanced from the parties to polarize the atmosphere, take the focus off policy, and sway elections.

The media increase the political nastiness while distancing voters from those clashes. Citizens become spectators. ­Headline-­driven news emphasizes the extremes, the fights, the hysteria, the sensational. Political reporters, trying to appear objective by quoting two opposing sides to almost every story, mostly sharpen the differences, slighting any centrist position. The news media have for decades broadcast the shrillest voices from the ­pro-­life and ­pro-­choice movements, for example, even as most Americans have accepted a centrist position, disliking abortion theoretically but being too pragmatic to outlaw it. The media’s Kabuki theater may not always sway Americans, but it demoralizes and distances ­them.

As has been the case with almost every new technology, from the telegraph to television, the rise of the Internet fed false expectations that it would create a new, more democratic, interactive politics. But blogging’s harsh, unfettered nature has coarsened politics. The fact that so many bloggers are essentially anonymous allows them to spew rancor, rumor, lies, and obscenities. Increasingly, the ­MSM (mainstream ­media) ­appear by contrast staid, centrist, boring, even responsible. ­Deadlines—­once daily, now without limit in the age of the Internet—­demand a constant stream of stories, diluting the quality and upping the rhetorical ante in the effort to grab ­attention.

In an ­ever-­escalating rhetorical spiral, political discussion in the media and the blogosphere becomes harsher, sleazier. At the same time, the stories that stand out are the sensational and polarizing ones rather than the constructive, ­bridge-­building ones. A variation of Gresham’s law applies: Just as bad money drives out the good, bad rhetoric and sleazy politics drive ­out—­or at least eclipse and ­obscure—­the ­good.

The strains within the American political system reflect a broader cultural crisis. It is hard to expect temperate leaders and reasonable politics in a culture of excess, a culture that encourages Americans to indulge almost every impulse. There are, however, signs of backlash. The two major party nominees of 2008 both rose to prominence by criticizing the political status quo, though as they consolidated their positions and charted strategy in the summer of 2008, the forces pushing for more partisanship ­prevailed.

Leaders willing to demand centrist government and less alienating politics are rare. Moderation is not considered sexy; bipartisan initiatives are frequently deemed boring. Ironically, it has been left to a media celebrity to fill part of the yawning gap in the middle. The comedian Jon Stewart of The Daily Show has become a hero to young ­Americans—­and one of their primary sources for ­news—­by throwing off partisan shackles and mocking the system. Stewart skewers Republican incompetence, Democratic impotence, and media irresponsibility with equal intensity. He says his comedy comes “from feeling displaced from society because you’re in the center. We’re the group of fairness, common sense, and moderation.”

Despite the forces pulling politicians to the extremes, Americans must remember that the United States is not Europe. The American political tradition is pragmatic and centrist. Our greatest presidents led from the center, seeking the golden path of national unity. George Washington inspired Americans to rally around their “common cause.” Even at the nation’s moment of maximum political extremism, Abraham Lincoln moderated the abolitionists’ ­anti­slavery fervor to keep the wavering border states fighting for union. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s big-tent New Deal incorporated some changes radicals demanded while preserving capitalism. These leaders understood that a democracy, resting on the consent of the governed, requires citizens to buy into politics. They were not ­namby-­pamby wafflers, but muscular moderates, rooted in core principles but nimble, confident, and patriotic enough to compromise when ­necessary.

In an age of celebrity politics and weakened parties, presidents have to fill the void, transcending partisanship and combating alienation. The media obsession with the ­Celebrity ­in ­Chief gives the president far more power than any party boss ever enjoyed. The “bully pulpit” of the White House has never been so prominent in American life, with the president so able to set the national tone and shape the country’s conversation. Future presidents should nurture civic engagement and restore confidence in government, even while maintaining a particular party ­identity.

Muscular moderation from our leaders, and a renewed faith among citizens, requires a new American nationalism, with national identity trumping party loyalty. The public’s frustrated yearning for a patriotic and civic revival fueled both Ronald Reagan’s success and Barack Obama’s meteoric rise. Both men captured Americans’ desire for greater faith in their leaders, their country, their system, themselves. The excitement about John McCain’s compelling life story likewise reflects a yearning for simpler, more patriotic times, rooted in self-sacrifice rather than self-indulgence.

We will start reducing the tension and reviving some faith in politics when we have leaders who understand that they must lead from the center, uniting Americans around core values and ensuring that politics are once again about being rooted in community and solving problems, not just rooting for one set of ­culture ­warriors over ­another.

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His latest book is Leading From the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

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HNN, January 18, 2008

[Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. ]

So far, the Democratic contest is feeling very twentieth century and the Republican contest is feeling very nineteenth century. As the Democratic contest becomes a battle of two titans, it is becoming a nationwide fight between two political stars with national constituencies. This was characteristic of some of the great nomination battles of the last half-century, be it Richard Nixon versus Nelson Rockefeller in 1960 or Walter Mondale versus Gary Hart in 1988. But the more wide-open Republican contest evokes comparisons with the fragmented nomination contests of yesteryear – only in those days the constituencies were often state or at best regional and today they are less geographically-based.

While much of the focus recently has been on race and gender in the Hillary versus Obama contest, the simple fact that the two have that iconic, Cher-like, famous-enough-to-be-known-by-one-name status, suggests that we are also talking about the politics of celebrity. Let’s face it. Despite Hillary Clinton’s claim to be the candidate of “experience” both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have pretty thin resumes. Obama is famous for being a newcomer. Neither has any real executive experience. Hillary Clinton is pretending that in the 1990s she was the co-president she hoped to be rather than the frustrated first lady that she was.

Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have resumes more similar to George W. Bush than to his far more experienced father, former Ambassador to China, former CIA director, former Republican National Committee Chairman, and former Vice President George H.W. Bush. Hillary Clinton became senator from a state in which she had never lived, because in the modern world, celebrity is transferable. In 2000, she showed she could apply her considerable name recognition and iconic status from the 1990s and parlay it into a New York Senate seat. Barack Obama had a more conventional march to the U.S. Senate from the State Senate, but without his rock-star-like rocketing to great fame as a result of his 2004 convention speech and his brilliant book marketing, he would be yet another workaday senator, accumulating seniority before making his big presidential play. Of course, the embarrassingly futile, failed candidacies of Senator Joe Biden and Senator Chris Dodd show just how much the modern American voter (and reporter) values Senatorial seniority – along with the resulting experience and wisdom.

So far, the three Republican victors most resemble the various regional warlords who would show up to quadrennial party conventions in the 1800s, hoping either to be the critical kingmaker or, better yet, actually be crowned the party’s temporary king. With Mike Huckabee having won the Iowa caucus, John McCain having won New Hampshire, and Mitt Romney having won Michigan, we are even hearing some analysts speculate that this year’s convention may actually be relevant for the nomination of the party’s standard bearer, rather than simply celebrating a democratic coronation. Each of the three winners represent a different dimension of the legendary, multi-dimensional Reagan coalition that has dominated the GOP – and shaped American politics – for more than a quarter century. Huckabee represents the evangelicals, McCain represents the national security types and possibly the neocons, and Romney represents the business and technocratic types. Or, to think about it in a slightly different way, if the three were auditioning for parts in a play about Ronald Reagan’s famous first-term advising triumvirate, Huckabee would play the true believer, Ed Meese; McCain would play the savvy PR guy Michael Deaver, and Romney would play the emissary to the corporate and Wall Street types, James A. Baker III. Analysts looking at the Republican side are also wondering if this wideopen field will make room for Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani as well.

Regardless of how it plays out, it seems clear that the George W. Bush years have strained the Reagan coalition. The challenge for the next nominee is either to revive that broad-based coalition or transform it, finding a new political formula that works. The Democrats have the easier and yet harder time. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are mainstream Democrats. Neither nomination would threaten Democratic business as usual. Then again, as a party that has only fielded two winning candidates since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 – Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton – maybe it is time for a more dramatic change on that side of the aisle too.

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