I’m clinging to hope. Not about who’s going to win next Tuesday. I am absolutely certain that by the time we meet again in print a week from now, Barack Obama will be the president-elect of the United States.
Hope, says the dictionary, is about our desires. Faith, on the other hand, is about confidence. I’ve got tons of the former. And damn near none of the latter. So if Obama offers hope, I’ll take what I can get.
When Obama is sworn into office, it will officially mark much more than just the election of America’s first black president (a minor miracle in itself). More than one more peaceful transition of power between the parties (something we take all too much for granted). And much more than what is shaping up to be an electoral landslide (a much-deserved comeuppance). Obama’s hand on the Bible will jump-start an entire new historical epoch, one that is already under way. We just don’t know what it is, or what we will call it, much less what it will bring.
That’s where I start to run a little short on faith.
The spectacular, thunderous and humiliating collapse of the McCain-Palin campaign should come as no surprise. At a time when our very livelihoods and those of our children seem to hang in the balance, it should not shock us that we were offered up such sad gimmicks as a tax-evading Joe the Plumber and an almost pre-verbal Caribou Barbie. That the Republican campaign is ending with what Chris Matthews called a “Seinfeld strategy” — it’s all about nothing — should leave us equally nonplussed.
McCain made no mistakes. He made no strategic fumbles. No more than the U.S. made a “mistake” in Vietnam — or in invading Iraq. The McCain debacle was but the logical, I would say inevitable, conclusion of a political movement that after three decades of dominance has completely exhausted itself. The policy pantry of the Reagan majority had already been looted and left bare by the time McCain declared his candidacy. The Republicans simply had nothing else to offer other than the bogeymen of race, terrorism and taxes. What possible, plausible policy remedy could Johnny Mac have pulled out of his rear pockets that hadn’t already been rather disastrously foisted on the American people since Ronnie Reagan came beaming into office 28 years ago, with a slightly orangish halo overhead?
Indeed, there’s a great parallel between this election and that of 1980. The conservative Long March, initiated by Barry Goldwater two decades previous, triumphed precisely because the Democrats of 1980 found themselves in the same fix Republicans do today. Bereft of any fresh ideas. More precisely, bereft of any ideas whatsoever. The stirring promise — and tangible success — of FDR’s New Deal had stagnated and atrophied into the rather enfeebled candidacies of Carter, Mondale and Dukakis. Can anyone remember any shred of hope that trio inspired?
Enter Reagan and his conservative confederates, who had nothing but ideas, almost all of them toxic. But the Reaganites won fair and square. At least they had something to fill the void left by the shattered New Deal coalition.
First and foremost, there was the conservative celebration of empire. America would no longer be a pitiable giant. Hundreds of billions would be pumped into the Pentagon. The Soviets — and the rest of the world for that matter — would be confronted directly by a bristling new array of troops, armor and nukes.
Next came deregulation. The ruthless smashing of the air-traffic-controllers union got that ball rolling.
Then there was the celebration of the private over the public. The grotesque reworking of American values, with the guy in the White House confirming that greed was good. And if the public sphere was, as we were told, dominated by welfare queens, poverty pimps and “failed government programs,” why not accelerate an obscene transfer of wealth upward? American ideals resided in the steely-eyed resolve of corporate CEOs and venture capitalists and certainly no longer in the mushy-headed fuzziness of some idealistic, liberal social worker or, God forbid, in an overpaid, underperforming and sinister public-school teacher. The word “liberal” itself became stigmatized by a cigar-chomping, pill-addicted ditto head, who, in a different time and place, would have been celebrating the anschluss of Austria or the occupation of Poland.
And, finally, let us not forget the resurrection and glorification of the Moral Majority. For the first time in modern American political life, the Bible-thumpers and televangelist hucksters were ushered into the backrooms of government policymaking, while Pat Buchanan brought the 1992 Republican Convention to an ecstatic blood boil as he promised that kulturkampf would be waged neighborhood by neighborhood, door-to-door, and that no infidel would be spared.
Fast-forward 25 years, and the whole concoction overflows the bowl under the reign of George W. Bush. All that Reagan-esque nationalism and hubris winds up dead-ended in the deserts of central Iraq and stymied by a ragtag group of fanatics in Afghanistan. The pre-eminence of the private sphere culminates in busted-out levees and an impotent FEMA. The culture war ends in a smoking defeat, as a new generation of Americans and their suburban parents tire of scoldings from those who openly refute the science of evolution and of impending climate change (a repulsion only doubled or tripled when one of the right’s most lunatic exponents is chosen as McCain’s running mate). And all that spreading the wealth around, mostly upward and toward the ultra-elite, coupled with ideologically driven extremes of deregulation, land us in the midst of the worst global economic crisis of our lifetime. And someone was still wondering why McCain didn’t move off the Bill Ayers issue to campaign, instead, on investing Social Security in the stock market? If you prefer simple outlines, then note the four-step process of the death of the Reagan era: Iraq, Katrina, Palin, the economic meltdown. Game over. Turn the page.
Here, however, the comparisons with 1980 perilously begin to diverge. When the New Deal era collapsed, the Reaganites were fully loaded and ready to boldly step in. But who’s ready this time to fill the void? Did I miss something, or have Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, Hillary Clinton and Harry Reid quietly, patiently and methodically been building a movement over the last 20 years that is ready — from Day One, as has become the cliché — to reinvent and resurrect American politics on the ashes of the failed conservative movement? Let’s face it, the Democrats performed shamefully at the onset of the Bush administration, its congressional leadership more or less meekly folding itself into the president’s war cabinet. The 2004 Kerry campaign was a political shambles. And as late as 2006, the Democrats won back Congress almost exclusively because they were not the Republicans. That victory had sweet little to do with any proactive moves by the Dems.
Does anyone seriously think the Democratic establishment is really prepared to govern effectively, as the global economic crisis deepens (as it surely will)? Have we forgotten that it was Democratic president Bill Clinton who signed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, which obliterated the financial regulatory framework built by FDR? These were the special babies of former-maestro-turned-stumblebum Alan Greenspan, which were backed by the same Robert Rubin and Larry Summers still held in great esteem on the Democratic economics bench. From where will the Democrats summon the courage, in fact, to spread the wealth back downward, offering not only tangible relief but also real opportunity to millions who will have no health care, perhaps no job and no longer a home of their own the same day the new president is sworn in? How much faith — not hope — do you have that four years from now, that there still won’t be 50 million Americans enjoying the basic right to minimal medical coverage?
Just hours away from this election, that’s what I’m worried about. Not about swing voters in Missouri or the Bradley effect in Ohio. I’m worried about the lack of a forward-looking governing vision by the party now coming to dominate all three branches of the government at a time when history demands, excuse the term, some very radical rethinking.
Much of Barack Obama’s appeal derives directly from his willingness to directly confront his own party apparatus, embodied in the ruthless and extralubricated Clinton machine. The determination, the steadiness, the intelligence, the sheer will he and his campaign demonstrated in defeating Billary and winning the nomination was nothing short of exhilarating. The first time I met Obama, in early 2007 at a little-noticed campaign event in Las Vegas, I immediately sensed the sort of cool, charismatic magic that has subsequently moved tens of millions into his ranks.
No, as he noted in jest a few weeks ago, Obama wasn’t born in a manger. He’s not the messiah. He does rely, for sure, on many of the same party hacks who have misled the Democratic Party during its sojourn in the political wilderness. Yet, he not only will inherit a historic opportunity to bring the sort of dramatic change he has promised, but he will also be faced with an awesome and powerful demand to do so if he values his political survival. Obama will not leave his mark on history by simply “reaching across the aisle” and empaneling a bipartisan study commission. For one, there won’t be much of a Republican Party left to connect with. More important, millions of rank-and-file Republicans — and Democrats and Independents and just as many other millions who rarely think of themselves in any political terms — will be anxiously waiting for someone to offer a sort of once-in-a-century leadership. Obama will achieve greatness, and he might even salvage this nation, if he fulfills his potential and becomes a transformative and transcendental president. Four years from now, the less significant it is to be identified as a Republican or a Democrat, the more significant a leader Obama will be. That is my hope.
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