Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: 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. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
This piece is an excerpt that originally appeared in the New York Times.
With fewer Americans interested in party conventions and television executives providing less prime time coverage, the calls to “just scrap ’em” are mounting. This summer, CBS announced it preferred broadcasting a rerun of “Hawaii Five-0” to convention speeches, while Chris Wallace of Fox News toasted the good old days when “real business got done.”
Primary voters, not convention delegates, select the presidential nominees. The nominees announce their running mates before the conventions begin. Nearly everyone seems to agree: these party parleys risk irrelevance.
But the conventional wisdom about conventions is wrong. Conventions still count. They help define the candidates, frame the debate, command attention and inject some communal moments into an increasingly atomized political process.
Maintaining traditional rituals is an important, unappreciated element of the campaign as a whole, a key part of its legitimizing function. The way we mobilize citizens, build candidate credibility and reaffirm party identity in two parallel rituals — despite all the partisan enmity — helps explain America’s quicksilver shift from vicious campaigns to peaceful, often rapturous, inaugurations. These familiar political ceremonies broadcast a reassuring continuity and stability even as candidates promise change, and partisans warn of disaster if they lose.
Since the 1830s, these matching, deliciously democratic rites have shaped campaigns, enhancing the dialogue between candidates and voters. Until Andrew Jackson’s democratizing revolution, “King Caucus” reigned, as Congressional leaders picked party nominees secretly. The conventions reflected nineteenth-century Americans’ emergence as partisans and not just voters. Popular party politics became the first great American national pastime. Then as now, convention delegates were both mediators and validators, conveying messages to candidates from their constituents, while bathing the candidates in populist love with hoopla and huzzahs....
Mitt Romney’s three state sweep this Tuesday is being touted as the tipping point in his surge toward the Republican nomination. The candidate whose greatest ability has been his inevitability now seems all but destined to become the Republican nominee. But in this moment of near-triumph, it is worth examining the great failure of Romney’s campaign so far. In a country that loves to see candidates grow and evolve, with a media primed to write the redemptive campaigning comeback story, Romney never seemed to get better as a candidate, never had that turnaround moment.
Instead, he has been the Steady Eddie of the campaign trail, grinding his way toward the nomination, surviving the occasional gaffe, with no appreciable improvement in his political skill set. His constancy is impressive but his inability to learn, to improvise, to get better, is disturbing. While it is fun to bash an inexperienced opponent by saying the presidency is no place for on-the-job training, the job is so different from any other job that on-the-job training is the only way to function effectively in office. Former governors like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have had to work hard to adjust to the ways of Washington, while former senators like Barack Obama and John Kennedy have had to work equally hard to master the executive skills required.
Different presidents come in with different talents, but all need to adapt, to stretch, to grow. Either Romney does not have that ability at all, and is just too rigid, or he does not have that ability politically, and is just too patrician. Either way, this failure to kickstart his campaign, to turn it around, and to become the new improved candidate, is worrying.
As a result, Romney looks like he is on his way to inheriting the nomination rather than earning it. The last candidate to back his way into the nomination, Bob Dole, enjoyed higher popularity ratings in the spring of 1996 than Romney does. After months of exposure to the American people, after tens of millions of dollars spent, the latest polls suggest that only about a third of Americans view Romney favorably, and half view him unfavorably. Those low numbers and Romney’s rigidity should be sobering to Republicans.
Of course, they can point to the Ford surge of thirty points or so in 1976, the Dukakis crash of twenty points or so in 1988, and even the repositioning Bill Clinton had to do in 1992. Campaigns are volatile. The stakes are high. The fight will be intense. But unless Mitt Romney can start incorporating feedback, making adjustments, improving his political skills, he will be broadcasting a warning message to Republicans who desperately want to win in November, as well as Americans who desperately want to see strong leadership in the White House, in the event that he nevertheless does win in November.
So far, it seems that former Senator Rick Santorum is having his Paul Tsongas/Bill Bradley Moment. Remember them? Each of these former senators enjoyed a momentary surge when running against a flawed candidate on the Democratic side. In 1992, Tsongas was the Massachusetts media darling who had a brief moment in the political sun, attacking Bill Clinton as a “Pander Bear,” with pander coming out as “panda,” thanks to Tsongas’s Massachusetts accent. New Jersey senator Bill Bradley was the former New York Knicks basketball star and Rhodes Scholar who distracted voters momentarily when Al Gore ran as the inevitable Democratic candidate in 2000. Both Tsongas and Bradley were more popular with reporters than with voters, particularly as they prolonged campaigns that threatened to end too quickly, given the media need for an extended fight.
Santorum is now proving useful to reporters anxious to drag out the Republican campaign, even as most reporters abhor his cultural conservatism. Tsongas and Bradley were each high priests in “Our Lady of the Principled, Priggish Politician,” appearing to waft above the normal political fray. Their fleeting surges fed mass American fantasies about politics as a higher calling. Santorum lacks that appeal—or much popularity with reporters, many of whom view him as a puritanical prig. Republican voters in conservative caucus states like his membership in a real Christian church, the Roman Catholic Church. In this election, that excites Protestant bigots who prefer a Catholic to a Mormon president.
While the bigotry from the Right against Mormonism has attracted attention, this bigotry is also being reinforced from the Left. The unfair obstacle Mitt Romney faces due to prejudice against his community of faith has not stirred enough indignation from the Left or the Right. On the Right, the passivity reflects the deep prejudice among the bigots who view Mormonism as an abomination, not a Christian denomination. On the Left, it reflects a pro-Obama protectiveness laced with an instinctive anti-Mormonism, based on its conservatism and strangeness. It is definitely a red-state religion.
A recent “Room for Debate” among New York Times guest bloggers asking “What is it about Mormons” reflected the kind of static Romney endures from those who would normally be primed to see the underlying hostility against him as a civil rights issue. The five experts the Times solicited about Mormonism were unflattering, to one degree or another. Sally Denton, the author of "The Money and the Power wrote about the Mormon church’s “Male-Dominated World,” with the tag line: “Given that Mitt Romney is a high church official and not just a member, voters are right to be circumspect,” Jana Riess, who wrote Flunking Sainthood, asked “Can a Candidate Be Too Perfect?” explaining that “Voters want someone they can identify with. Historically, that does not bode well for Mormons.” Ian Williams, a refugee from Mormonism, said: “It May Look Good on Paper…. But some of us who have experienced the Mormon life firsthand would rather choose a messy, colorful America.” And “There Is a Dark Side to Mormonism,” warned another author, Jane Barnes, saying “When it comes to the social agenda, the Mormon church does not respect separation of church and state.” Finally, readers learned about “Mormons’ Double Legacy” from Professor Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, who said “Just as Mormons seem to be ideal Americans, they also provoke typically American fears.”
In fairness, the short entries raised issues that are shaping the contemporary conversation about the man who still remains the leading Republican candidate. But it is instructive to substitute the words “Mormon” and “Mormonism” in judging whether the overall impression provided enlightenment or bred bigotry. I doubt the Times would have run a debate asking: “What is it about” blacks or gays or Catholics or women or Jews?" Would it have been acceptable to write in 1960 about John Kennedy’s Catholicism: Given that the Kennedys have met the Pope and support the church, “voters are right to be circumspect,” or in 2000 during Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman’s stint as the first Jew on a major ticket,...
Everyone’s having a grand old time mocking Mitt Romney for finally “admitting”: “I’m not very concerned about the very poor.” The quotation has been bandied about as proof that Romney is a greedy, unfeeling capitalist. And, in a presidential campaign which emphasizes optics over good sense, Romney has already retreated, saying he “misspoke.”
In fairness, the quotation was taken out of context. Romney said: “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich. They’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America—the 90-95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.” In other words, Romney did not intend to convey contempt for the poor. He was saying that there are programs dedicated to protecting the poor but it is the middle class that is being completely ignored.
This “gaffe” and Romney’s other rich-related verbal stumbles recall the unhappy political career of Dan Quayle, George H.W. Bush’s linguistically challenged vice president, who was dismissed as stupid for all kinds of doozies. Remember the time, when he was in Hawaii, and said, "When I meet with world leaders, what's striking—whether it's in Europe or here in Asia..." even though Hawaii’s a chain of islands far from the Asian land mass, and is at best called Oceania. Or the time he said, "We're the country that built the Intercontinental Railroad" when it was the transcontinental railroad. Or the time he said, “The Middle East is obviously an issue that has plagued the region for centuries.” Or, my personal favorite, the time he said in Beaverton, Oregon: “I've now been in 57 states—I think one left to go.”
Don’t remember Dan Quayle saying these? Well, you're right—it was Barack Obama. These and other verbal pratfalls, compiled by Daniel Kurtzman, are not all that well-known. This is because even his opponents agree that Barack Obama is smart and eloquent. When he stumbles, most people understand that anyone forced to talk as often as he is before cameras is bound to make the occasional error.
Romney on the wealth issue, and Quayle on the intelligence issue, ran into what I call the “O-Ring Factor.” Just as that particular part on the space shuttle Challenger eroded only because of specific weather conditions, most gaffes only stick where politicians are vulnerable. Obama is rarely tongue-tied, so he can get away with the occasional vocabulary or linguistic malfunction. But reporters and rivals loved questioning Quayle’s intelligence, just as reporters and rivals are now enjoying questioning Romney’s sensitivity to the other 99.9 percent of Americans less wealthy than he is.
Unfortunately, such pouncing comes at a price. It sets candidates on edge, making all of them even more superficial and artificial. None of us would fare very well with cameras recording our every statement. This campaign is seeking a chief executive not a robot. Let’s have an honest debate about the impact of Romney’s wealth on his worldview—but spare us this tomfoolery, or Dan Quaylery.
Toward the end of Thursday night’s debate in Florida, which viewers were told repeatedly would be high stakes and very serious, CNN’s moderator Wolf Blitzer asked the candidates to assess their wives as potential First Ladies. Blitzer’s question was valid and relevant. For decades now, Americans have seen a presidential candidate’s life partner as a window into the soul of the man or woman seeking to lead us. Furthermore, experience shows that controversial First Ladies like Hillary Clinton in the first years of the Clinton administration can distract from the president’s agenda, while popular First Ladies like Hillary Clinton in the later Clinton years can be helpful advocates and effective buffers for their spouses. Unfortunately, Blitzer conveyed the impression that the topic was trivial, a fleeting, entertaining diversion from the weighty affairs of state at hand.
Blitzer bracketed the discussion by saying: we "want to get right back to the rest of the debate, but first, on a lighter subject, I want to ask each of these gentlemen why they think their wife would make a great first lady.” Without mentioning her first name, Carol, Ron Paul described her as wife, mother, grandmother, and “the author of a very famous cookbook, ‘The Ron Paul Cookbook.’”
Mitt Romney echoed Blitzer’s breeziness by first saying, in response to Paul’s quick list, “I've got to take a little bit more time, a little more seriousness.” Catching himself, not wanting to show disrespect to Paul on this issue, Romney said to Paul: “nothing wrong with what you said—I'm sorry.” Mitt Romney then described his wife Ann, “My wife,” in fuller terms as “a mom” but also “a real champion and a fighter,” battling her own health ailments and helping young women “in troubled situations.”
Newt Gingrich actually mentioned his wife Callista’s name and described her “artistic flair” and media savvy. Reflecting the now-classic divide between working women and stay-at-home-moms, Newt Gingrich described Callista’s work achievements but had no family tidbits to tout. The former Speaker actually was the most gentlemanly by hailing all spouses involved as “terrific.”
Rick Santorum spoke most movingly, describing his wife Karen as “my hero.” Rick Santorum described his wife both as “a mother to our seven children,” and as a nurse, a lawyer, an author, but someone who “walked away” from her profession “and walked into something that she felt called to do, which was to be a mom and to be a wife.”
In truth, each answer could have invited rich follow-ups, raising discussions of gender roles, of family dilemmas, of core values. The candidates could have discussed what it means to be a First Lady as well as the symbolic importance of the President as head of state. But the token moment had passed.
“Very nice,” Wolf Blitzer said. “All right, let's get back to the debate….”
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...
Bring It On: Early Attacks on Romney's Bain Capital Record May Inoculate Him Against Democratic Attacks
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.”
Mitt Romney’s margin of eight votes highlights just how small and unrepresentative the sample at the Iowa caucus is - -and how marginal that exercise should be. My third grade class presidency was decided with a larger margin. And, once again, the state that made Pat Robertson a viable candidate – albeit temporarily in 1988 – and has made ethanol subsidies a pork barrel standard, has given us the “gift” of Ron Paul. That 21.4 percent of .004 percent of the American people wants this extremist with a racist past does not say much, although Paul’s popularity with the younger voters could be a worrying harbinger.
The big news from this small sample, of course, is Mitt Romney’s continuing stasis. Barack Obama’s campaign people should be studying Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign. Back then, Bob Dole was the inevitable, Republican establishment candidate, dutifully nominated because of his electability, who failed to beat an eminently beatable Democratic incumbent. Romney’s people are going to have to work harder in rifling through the historical files. The candidates who have unseated incumbents in the last half-century – Bill Clinton in 1992, Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Jimmy Carter in 1976 – were blessed with two advantages Romney lacks. First, each of the incumbents faced a tough nomination fight – Pat Buchanan ran against George H.W. Bush in 1992, Ted Kennedy combated Jimmy Carter in 1980, and Reagan opposed Gerald Ford in 1976. Furthermore, Clinton, Reagan, and Carter, in their winning campaigns, were able to generate an excitement among rank and file party members, and core committed partisans, that we have not yet seen propelling Romney.
At this point, the 1980 results, which were more an ABC – Anybody but Carter – vote than a referendum for Reagan, offer the most optimistic path for Romneyites (or should we call them, with a nod at Newt Gingrich’s McGovernik remarks, Mittniks?). Romney has to try casting Obama as Carter redux, failing to manage the economy, inspire Americans, or defend the nation affirmatively abroad, hoping to win the not Yoko but ONO vote – Only not Obama.
Meme Alert: We are now being told that Republicans are Divided. How is this shocking news at the start of a presidential nomination fight when Republicans have yet to choose a candidate? Isn’t that what the election process is all about, starting divided, fragmented, tied to many candidates, and then, through the democratic process, rallying around one nominee, then one winner?
Housekeeping Detail: This is the relaunch of my Blog which covered the 2008 campaign in detail, but has been much quieter lately as I finished a book. As in 2008, I will post at least weekly through the presidential campaign, trying to provide some historical context to the discussion. My goal is to avoid three Ps – polemics, partisanship, and predictions –and provide a valuable fourth one, perspective. This entails not only rifling through historical files as I did above, but locating this important, nationwide democratic conversation in the broad sweep of American history and presidential campaigning history. I know dear readers, from last time, that if I ever deviate from the mandate, you will be there to chide me, correct me, and help me redeem myself. And we’re off…..
Ten years ago, 19 Islamist terrorists hijacked four airplanes, murdered nearly three thousand people, destroyed the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, and damaged one side of the Pentagon. Our therapeutic culture encourages us to “move on,” rather than wallowing in anger. And we are supposed to seek “root causes” to violence, absolving belligerent individuals and nations of moral responsibility, especially if we perceive someone from the Third World assailing powerful white Westerners. But at the risk of being politically and psychologically incorrect, I remain angry after all these years. The ruins of the Twin Towers have stopped smoldering – I haven’t.
I am still angry that so many good people lost their lives. I mourn with the parents who buried their children so prematurely – or had no remains to inter – along with the widowed spouses, the orphaned children. Every victim has a name and a narrative; imagining the possibilities of lives not fully lived compounds the daily ache of missing a lost friend or relative’s look, laugh, love. For weeks after 9/11, the New York Times ran what became a Pulitzer-Prize winning series, "Portraits of Grief." These mini-biographies painted a pointillist picture of what America and the world lost that day, one precious life at a time. And they confirmed what many of us knew but the media was too PC to say – although the victims came from dozens of countries and all classes, most were either white collar male professionals – like me – or blue collar rescue workers who went to work one day and never returned.
I am still angry at the anti-Americanism that formed the backdrop to these mass murders. Al-Qaeda’s anti-Western ideology is a murderous manifestation of a broader phenomenon mixing resentment of American power, jealousy of American success, fear of American freedom, and contempt for American novelty. In its mildest forms, this anti-Americanism gives Canadian elites something to laugh about at cocktail parties and unites haughty Old World Europeans who disdain the aggressive New World upstarts as crude cowboys. In its ugly Islamist form, this anti-Americanism strengthens Muslim fundamentalists’ dreams of a Caliphate theocracy dominating the world.
I am still angry at the foolish, foul Red-Green alliance between radical leftists and Islamists, that has too many in Europe and on campuses echoing the Islamist agenda even when it entails rationalizing sexism, homophobia, theocracy and autocracy. These laptop jihadists, these posturing Chomskyites, view Third Worlders as necessarily noble, oppressed, and thereby justified in attacking Americans, Israelis, and others they deem powerful “whites” – despite the multiracial makeup of both America and Israel. These self-hating hypocrites only see Western faults, staying scandalously silent about Syria’s crackdown or Iran’s nuclear ambitions. At one government-organized conference I attended after 9/11, most of the Canadian academics there explained “what happened” by selecting their pet American foreign policy peeve –ranging from Central America to the Middle East. I felt compelled to suggest that I watched the wrong channel that day, because on my TV screen I saw Islamist terrorists had attacked the US, not the opposite.
I am still angry at the United Nations which has become international headquarters for this selective indignation and these double standards. Founded with democratic idealism in the 1940s, the world body has degenerated since the 1970s into the Third World Dictators’ Debating Society as autocrats deploy in New York the very democratic techniques they ban at home.
I am still angry at the bipartisan failure by both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to prevent the crime. The moral onus remains on the terrorists, but President Clinton lacked the guts to hunt down Osama Bin Laden more aggressively while President Bush failed to focus on the threat. Informed speculation that better cooperation between the CIA and the FBI could have stopped the jihadists is emotionally devastating. The fact that in the 2000 presidential campaign reporters and politicians ignored terrorism reflects the bipartisan sloppiness the terrorists exploited.
I am still angry that despite the rhetoric claiming that terrorism never succeeds, terrorism has worked -- most dramatically in somehow legitimizing Palestinian demands, making the late Yasir Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization the spiritual and tactical trailblazers for Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
I am still angry that this summer, just weeks before 9/11’s tenth anniversary, leading media outlets again rationalized and relativized terrorism by calling the Gazan terrorists who slaughtered eight Israelis near Eilat – including two sisters vacationing together with their respective husbands – “militants.”
I am still angry about the convergence of anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism,...
The downgrading of America’s credit rating just days after the debt ceiling fight ended risk branding Barack Obama’s presidency as an historic failure. The S and P analysts made it clear that they were passing political judgment on the United States, not just making an economic assessment. While Republicans clearly share the blame for American political gridlock, Obama shoulders most of the burden as the Chief Executive of the United States of America.
The perception of American paralysis reflects deep ideological divisions in the country as well as disturbing management failures in the Oval Office. Barack Obama is smart, eloquent, talent but inexperienced as an executive. As a community organizer, an academic, a senator on the state and national levels, he has led but not managed. The presidency is an executive position and it is not a place for on-the-job-training, especially during times of economic catastrophe.
The debt ceiling fight and the ensuing downgrade proved yet again that few politicians fear the current President. Barack Obama seemingly skipped the section in Machiavelli which teaches “it is much safer to be feared than loved.” So far, he has proved himself to be as tough as terrycloth.
Obama’s dainty presidency will continue drifting until both Democrats and Republicans, in Congress and in the Executive Branch, learn that crossing the President has a cost, and that this President, like other strong leaders, will wreak vengeance on errant allies as well as political enemies.
Petulance is not enough. President Obama has repeatedly denounced the Republicans as obstructionist. But these displays of presidential piqué backfired, legitimizing Tea Party claims to being independent trouble makers. Moreover, Obama’s denunciations risk becoming ritualized, more like the fulminations of a substitute teacher who cannot control the class rather than the commands of the disciplinarian assistant principal who restores order.
Obama has long struggled with this problem of presidential wimpiness. Rahm Emanuel swaggered into the Oval Office as White House Chief of Staff to be Obama’s enforcer. Stories about Emanuel’s toughness, such as the time he repeatedly stabbed a steak when talking about Bill Clinton’s political enemies, suggested that Obama understood the need for forceful leadership and the need to compensate for his own conciliatory instincts. But years in the House leadership softened Emanuel, making him too deferential to Congress. Congressional Democrats acted with impunity during the two years they enjoyed a majority in both Houses. The result was the health care bill, among other Congressional concoctions, a bill so complex because it indulged so many legislative whims it is difficult for the President to explain clearly in popular terms.
Obama’s most successful predecessors cultivated reputations for toughness. Theodore Roosevelt conceptualized the White House as a bully pulpit for national leadership while understanding the need to bully the occasional critic. Franklin Roosevelt’s famous challenge, "judge me by the enemies I have made," today sounds like a wartime boast to contrast his virtues with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. In fact, Roosevelt made this defiant statement during his 1932 campaign visit to Portland, Oregon, vowing to confront greedy public utilities. As president, Roosevelt perfected various techniques for rewarding friends and punishing enemies. He distributed federal goodies like a tyrannical father doles out love, attention, and allowance, favoring the districts of loyal legislators such as Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson, whose constituents then prospered. Conversely, while historians often emphasize Roosevelt’s failure to unseat the conservative Democratic Congressmen he opposed in 1938, targeting some kept others in line.
Ronald Reagan, like Obama, was constitutionally unable to bully party members who strayed or opponents who obstructed. But Reagan, the great delegator, had aides strong-arm others when necessary. Reagan’s Legislative Strategy Group, the LSG, was particularly effective at tracking allies, enemies, and flip-floppers.Early in Reagan’s tenure, when one Republican, Iowa Senator Roger Jepsen, threatened to stray on a difficult foreign policy vote to sell the air force’s sophisticated AWACS to Saudi Arabia, the LSG kept him in line. “We just beat his brains in,” the White House political director Ed Rollins exulted publicly, if indiscreetly.
More broadly, Reagan knew he had to telegraph toughness, especially because many underestimated him as a mere actor and a political amateur. Reagan entered office at a time of economic upheaval, following the presidency of Jimmy Carter, whose pessimistic sermonizing was mocked in the infamous headline a Boston Globe copyeditor jokingly set and then mistakenly ran: “MUSH FROM THE WIMP.” In August 1981, when members of the Air Traffic Controllers’...
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...
Betty Ford, who died on Friday at the age of 93, in the 1970s was the most controversial First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt. During Gerald Ford’s brief presidency, from August 1974 through January, 1977, his wife Betty retrofitted the odd role she inherited to suit the modern media sensibility. Peddling the Ford marriage as a "normal" partnership struggling with the challenges of raising a modern family, Betty Ford inserted herself at the flashpoint of the country's social upheavals. In so doing, she became an iconic American figure even though she may have cost her husband the Presidency in 1976.
Mrs. Ford's acknowledgment that she had breast cancer and a mastectomy in September 1974 was heroic. As thousands of women rushed to get mammograms, the legend of Betty Ford the candid political wife was born. After enduring years of neglect while Gerry Ford politicked, sometimes left at home with the four children for over 250 days in a year, Betty Ford loved the attention.
Most reporters welcomed this refreshing, "normal," First Lady. They tired of "Plastic Pat" Nixon, a selfless spouse who, they sneered, traveled with a hairdresser and an embalmer. Betty Ford brought controversy, fun, and a shot at the front page.
Most reporters, therefore, overlooked the fact that Betty Ford spent much of her husband's tenure dazed by tranquilizers and alcohol. Her oldest son Michael would describe a typical evening in the White House study: "my dad will work in his chair" and "my mother will sit in her chair and she'll read or maybe she'll watch TV or she'll just kind of reflect on things." Barbara Walters recognized that "reflection" as the "zombie"-like state of a substance abuser exhausted by her efforts to maintain appearances.
When Betty Ford was active, she was too active. On "Sixty Minutes" in August 1975, she speculated that "all" four of her children had "probably tried marijuana," and confessed that she "wouldn't be surprised" if her eighteen-year-old daughter Susan had "an affair"—quaint language for premarital sex. More than thirty-thousand letters bombarded the White House, with 23,308 "con" letters, 10,512 "pro." Betty Ford had provoked a nationwide symposium on sexual morality.
Mrs. Ford’s fans championed her as a new kind of First Lady, candid and "hip." Most approving letters wished she were running for president or her husband were a Democrat -- implying she earned their love not their votes. At best, Betty Ford neutralized some hostility to her husband, but few liberals were willing to cross party lines to support a president they disliked just because they liked his wife.
Mrs. Ford's detractors, on the other hand, abandoned the President. "We think this error is much more serious than anything that President Nixon did," a Southerner wrote. "Your statements on '60 Minutes' cost your husband my vote," one woman added. "Until now I thought we had someone in the White House who thought along the same lines that I did."
Nearly two weeks after the broadcast, Gerald Ford was still trying to clarify the "misunderstanding." His popularity had dropped from 55.3 percent to 38.8 percent. The President said that "Betty meant we're deeply concerned about the moral standards" in the family. Feminists snapped that husbands should not speak for their wives.
At a critical moment, when the conservative former governor of California Ronald Reagan was contemplating a direct challenge to an incumbent president of his own party, Betty Ford alienated President Ford's right flank. Within a month Nancy Reagan criticized "the new morality" for young people. Mrs. Reagan's talk had the desired effect, garnering headlines that "MRS. REAGAN, MRS. FORD DISAGREE ON SEX."
The "60 Minutes" controversy helped encourage Reagan’s run, which crippled President Ford during the 1976 election against Jimmy Carter—the only presidents to lose re-election campaigns in the last fifty years first faced serious challenges for the nomination. Gerald Ford initially speculated that his wife's remarks would cost him ten million votes—but quickly doubled that estimate. Ultimately, Carter won by less than two million votes out of eighty million cast. Despite the polls and the media adulation, Betty Ford cost Gerald Ford the presidency.
Mrs. Ford showed that in the modern era, First Ladies often do more harm than good, electorally. As a lightning rod for criticism, she personified one aspect of her husband's character that some feared, in this case, that he was too soft. As with the Carters, the Reagans, and the Clintons, the stronger the wife appeared, the more popular she became, the weaker the husband seemed.
The political damage Betty Ford caused reveals the difficult balancing act facing First Couples. Reporters and voters often have conflicting needs. Popularity does not always translate into political success. In America's mass-media...
On December 23, 1796, right after George Washington published his Farewell Address to the nation, the caustic editor Benjamin Franklin Bache, Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, published his farewell to America’s first president. “If ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by Washington,” Bache wrote. “If ever a nation has suffered from the improper influence of a man, the American nation has suffered from the influence of Washington. If ever a nation was deceived by a man, the American nation has been deceived by Washington. Let his conduct then be an example to future ages. Let it serve to be a warning that no man may be an idol... let the history of the Federal government instruct mankind, that the masque of patriotism may be worn to conceal the foulest designs against the liberties of the people.” Nearly 215 years later, on June 30, 2011, one of America’s leading political pundits, Mark Halpern, on live television, assessed President Barack Obama’s press conference performance by saying “I thought he was kind of a d**k” – using the four letter nickname for Richard, which also serves as a slang term for male genitalia.
Let us start with the good news. Then as now, the United States passed what the former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky calls the “public square test.” Having survived the Soviet gulag, Sharansky does not take for granted the freedom citizens in a true democracy like ours have to denounce their rulers publicly without being harmed. MSNBC suspended Halpern “indefinitely,” from one of his TV talking head gigs. And Halpern faces a wave of public indignation and ridicule but not, thank goodness, the firing squad.
And now, we offer the bad news. Benjamin Franklin Bache was a mean-spirited hatchet man. He loved making trouble and he badly abused the first President of the United States. But his diatribe is poetic, panoramic, and powerfully political. The rhythm is Biblical in its denunciation, and the sweeping condemnation of Washington – with an eye on “future ages” -- gets the reader thinking about leadership, patriotism, liberty, celebrity, and posterity. By contrast, Halpern gets us thinking in soundbites and vulgarities. Rather than elevating politics from the street to the salon as Bache did – in all his ugliness – Halpern – like so many others today – reduces us with his potty mouth from the Bully Pulpit to the public toilet.
To me, this issue is less about civility and more about substance. Halpern delivered his comment with a morning anchor’s smile; one imagines Benjamin Franklin Bache writing his passage with spleen and a sneer. Halpern’s “gaffe,” the verbal equivalent of a burp, is the inevitable result of punditry by punchline in an age of infotainment, when commentators feel pressured to entertain rather than enlighten, when it is better to be breezy than boring, when political talk is more about handicapping political horse races than crusading for political ideas.
The word “campaign” originated in the seventeenth century from the French word for open field, campagne. With contemporary soldiers fighting sustained efforts, often on the wide country terrain, the term quickly acquired its military association. The political connotation emerged in seventeenth-century England to describe a lengthy legislative session. In nineteenth-century America, campaign was part of the barrage of military terms describing electioneering -- as the party standard bearer, a war horse tapping into his war chest and hoping not to be a flash-in-the-pan -- a cannon that misfires -- mobilized the rank-and-file with a rallying cry in battleground states to vanquish their enemies. American politicians needed to conquer the people’s hearts because popular sovereignty has been modern Anglo-American government’s distinguishing anchor since colonial days. As with war, politics can ennoble or demean, but it is often epoch-making, historic. How pathetic it is, that with the entertainment imperative ruling us these days, we frequently experience politics simply as one more distraction, which is what the Halpern putdown was and the ensuing controversy about it in our media echo chamber inevitably will be.
Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University. His latest book is The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.
Gil Troy, National Post · May 24, 2011
Believe it or not, just as we finished with Canada's mercifully brief -but far too frequent -national election campaign, the first American presidential debate for 2012 took place. Fox News and the South Carolina Republican Party hosted a candidates' forum on May 5 in Greeneville, S.C., a mere 18 months before Election Day. Former governor Tim Pawlenty was the only A-lister present; other participants included Rep. Ron Paul, tycoon Herman Cain, former senator Rick Santorum and former governor Gary Johnson. The Ronald Reagan Library postponed its debate, originally scheduled for May 2, until September, when presumably more candidates will have announced. Of course, a Reagan debate on May 2 would have been better poetically, both because of its overlap with the Canadian contest, and because, more than 30 years after his inauguration, Ronald Reagan -or at least his iconic reputation -remains the standard by which Republicans judge their candidates. On the Democratic side, it is safe to assume that some future historians will begin their account of the 2012 campaign with the death of Osama bin Laden. Whether it proves a boost to Obama's campaign or not, it is a significant historic move that arrived just as the Republican party is beginning to prepare for the coming election.
We can, of course, expect that this campaign, like all the others, will feature high-minded calls to focus on substance -even as candidates, journalists and, let's face it, voters, succumb to base appeals and debates. Such spectacles are a necessary part of democratic politics. But we should hope that the inevitable rhetorical fireworks don't eclipse the important debates that should dominate the coming campaign. Americans should be debating at least three fundamental questions: What kind of government do they want, what kind of military do they need and what kind of leadership have they been getting?
Although Obama and the leaders of the Tea Party do not agree on much, they have been addressing this first basic question for months. In a recent speech on deficit reduction at George Washington University, Obama spoke of two threads "running throughout our history" -one of rugged individualism, with a belief in free markets, and "a belief that we are all connected ... that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation." It is too facile to caricature the Republicans as the individualists and the Democrats as the communitarians, but Republicans are individualists -who believe in a strong national defence. Democrats like Obama are communitarians -who understand that a strong economy must be free. How precisely to weave the two threads together is one of the central challenges of modern governance, and of the upcoming election.
Regarding the military, there are practical, tactical questions along with abstract ideological dilemmas. Especially in an age of cutbacks, the military must justify the huge chunk of the budget it devours. And America's partial involvement in the attempt to dislodge Muammar Gaddafi is a suitable launching pad for wider-ranging discussions about when the United States should resort to military force, what kind of force the U.S. should engage in, and whether American foreign policy should be realist or idealistic. All these questions again feed into the broader issue of just what kind of country America will be.
Finally, this election will be a referendum on Obama. It is hard making a re-election campaign about anything else but the incumbent. And especially considering the tremendously high hopes Obama's "Yes We Can" campaign stirred in 2008, the overwhelming challenges Obama has faced since winning and the continuing questions about just what are his core ideals, the election is likely to pivot around him and his job performance.
Amid all the predictions and speculation about the final result, candidates, commentators and voters have an opportunity to debate the serious issues facing the United States today. Whether any and all tackle these three key questions will be the true measure of the upcoming campaign's success.
Plus -- Extra Thought for the Day -- Govenor Mitch Daniel's reluctance to run for President - actually his family's reluctance -- reminds me of the late David Broder's famous "looney test" -- which raises a modern paradox. He suggested that the campaign had become so insane that anyone crazy enough to run was by definition too looney for us to...
Despite the talk about “Obama’s Mideast speech” Thursday, I actually heard two separate addresses. In the first, President Barack Obama offered vague nostrums about the “Arab spring,” best summarized in three words: Democracy is good. Obama transitioned awkwardly to the second speech, about Israelis and Palestinians, saying: “Let me conclude by talking about another cornerstone of our approach to the region, and that relates to the pursuit of peace.” In this section, the professorial president turned from airy abstractions to problematic particulars. Although it was impossible to predict America’s next move in the Arab world from the speech’s first part, we now know exactly how an Israel-Palestine peace treaty would look if Obama could dictate it and those annoying people who live there would just follow.
Sophisticated cinema buffs will have identified the inspiration for the “Democracy is good” quotation – that frat house classic, “Animal House.” In the fictitious campus where the movie’s hijinks occur, the founder’s statue features the empty motto “Knowledge is good.” Of course it is, and so is democracy – for many of the reasons Obama identified. But I defy anyone, based on that speech, to explain why Obama abandoned Hosni Mubarak in Egypt rather quickly, attacked Muhammar Qaddafi very definitively, and dithered with Bashar al-Assad, only abandoning him quite recently. Moreover, can anyone predict Obama’s next move based on this speech or identify just what principles will guide him?
Having failed the tests of consistency and retroactivity, Obama’s words also lacked clarity. The biggest conundrum he faces as various Arab allies face popular revolts, and as other Arab countries potentially face Islamist revolts, is how he balances America’s interest and ideals. Obama identified “core interests,” including “countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel's security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace.” He endorsed finding “mutual interests and mutual respect.” But how to balance all those factors is difficult. I have no idea how to do that, which is why I am happy not to be president. But, as a voter, I have no idea how Obama plans to do it either.
Finally, and surprisingly, Obama’s words lacked legs. Not one phrase seems likely to resonate. And judging by the Franklin Roosevelt majestic, memorable, “four freedoms” standard, Obama’s “universal rights” are mushy and forgettable. Compare Roosevelt: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear – with Obama – “And these rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders -– whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran.” The “Yes We Can” poet of 2008, has become the technocratic cataloguer of 2011, forgetting basic rules like the power of parallelism in rhetoric.
Not surprisingly, Obama’s more specific and pointed Israel-Palestine peace plan has attracted the most attention – and controversy. Here, by being too specific, Obama once again complicated future negotiations. As President of the United States, dealing with understandably nervous allies in an explosive region, he had a moral obligation to reconcile his proposal with his predecessor’s plans, acknowledging if he was deviating from an earlier consensus while upholding commitments earlier Presidents have made.
Yet, in discussing Hamas, Obama ignored the conditions the Quartet of the European Union, the United States, Russia and the United Nations embraced – requiring the Palestinian government to recognize Israel, renounce violence and honor past agreements. Asking Palestinians to find a “credible answer to the question … How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist” is a start – but lacks the specifics Obama’s predecessor and allies endorsed.
Even more problematic was his call for “the borders of Israel and Palestine” to “be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” These words not only seem to contradict George W. Bush’s vow to Ariel Sharon based on decades of American policy, but the deification of 1967 boundaries lacks historical nuance in a region obsessed with nuance and history.
The logical starting point in advocating a two-state solution comes by acknowledging that in the region particular borders shifted and populations moved. Anyone who talks about people frozen in place for centuries or borders as if they were permamarked on a map is either a fool or a fanatic. Bible-based Israelis must admit that the boundaries of Biblical land of Israel, varied, just as passionate Palestinians must admit that the boundaries of Palestine-Israel in the twentieth-century alone shifted repeatedly...
Suddenly, the anemic 2012 race is heating up. Bythis time four years ago, Senator Obama had been campaigning hard since his formal launch three months earlier. The killing of Osama Bin Laden at the beginning of May finally gave President Barack Obama renewed energy for his re-election bid. Days later, on May 5, Republicans experienced their first debate, er, preliminary primary campaign forum, sponsored by Fox News, followed by renewed speculation about just who might run for the nomination. And, predictably, we have the campaign’s first major diversion, triggering at least three hyped articles in the New York Times – leading Republicans with fidelity problems. The two prime examples are former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, on wife number three, and Indian Governor Mitch Daniels, whose wife Cheri Daniels took a break from their marriage and family life to marry another man, only to return and remarry Daniels.
The most recent article “Marital Matters and the 2012 Election,” resurrects another campaign tradition – the news analysis lacking historical analysis – which is where this blog hopes to come in handy. The article went off track by claiming: “In decades past, there was kind of an unwritten rule in politics: a candidate’s private life mattered only to the extent that it reflected on his or her ability to serve. That rule became extinct with the 1988 presidential campaign of Gary Hart, the Colorado Democrat caught on a yacht named ‘Monkey Business’ snuggling with a woman other than his wife.”
Traditionally, the “unwritten rule” was that a candidate’s private life mattered only to the extent that it could appear ideal. There has been a longstanding fascination with potential First Ladies, accompanied by a longstanding willingness on reporters’ part not to pry too deeply. But, for example, when Nelson Rockefeller divorced his first wife and quickly remarried, it destroyed his presidential prospects a quarter of a century before Gary Hart’s “Monkey Business.” And in 1828, even though he won, opponents hurt Andrew Jackson by accusing his wife Rachel of bigamy, a charge Jackson believed broke her heart and killed her.
Similarly, the article’s claim that “In today’s celebrity-obsessed, Internet-driven world, voters are hungry for details, especially when the presidency is at stake,” was also misleading. Even though the claim was adorned by a quotation from Doris Kearns Goodwin that “Character matters… We think about that now in choosing somebody for office,” “celebrity” and “Internet” are relatively new ingredients in a much older recipe. Assessing the president’s character has long been one of America’s greatest national pastimes. George Washington himself became president and became legendary based more on his character, his virtue, than any particular policy stances. And the First Lady’s peculiar, undefined, extraconstitutional role has often functioned as a window into the president’s character, while First Families have been expected to embody traditional values.
True, our celebrity obsession and 24/7 blogosphere, our culture of gossip and obsession with the presidential horse race have heightened the scrutiny immeasurably. So far, even the supposedly sober New York Times has put more emphasis on Mitch Daniels’ marital trauma than his budget-cutting skills. But some modern candidates have created no-fly zones over particular aspects of their personal lives. The article mentioned Bill Clinton’s effective navigation around his infidelities in 1992. In 1996, Bob Dole did not lose because he betrayed his first wife, which few noticed; in 2004 John Kerry did not lose because he betrayed his first wife. And in 2000, George W. Bush’s great line “when I was young and stupid, I was young and stupid,” earned him more immunity than many would have expected in our culture of scrutiny. Bush’s example helped Barack Obama himself avoid much fallout for confessing drug use as a youth.
Mitch Daniels has a great one-liner: “If you like happy endings, you’ll love our story.” Whether it works remains to be seen. But even at this stage, when few predictions are sound, we can predict that over the next year and a half, we won’t just be debating policy. In presidential politics, character counts – as it has for over two centuries. Just what character means and how it can be judged remains a subject of great debate; sometimes enlightening, sometimes tawdry.
By Gil Troy
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University. He is the author of"Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents" (Basic Books, 2008). His latest book, co-edited with Vincent J. Cannato, is"Living in the Eighties" (Oxford University Press, 2009).
The American voters gave President Barack Obama a good, old-fashioned political whupping on Tuesday. It was a stunning political reversal as Mr. Yes We Can became Mr. Why Can't They Understand and Appreciate Me? President Barack Obama must learn his lesson from this political drubbing. To redeem his presidency, he must do what he originally promised to do, lead from the center—humbly and substantively.
The rise of the Tea Party, the loss of many moderate Democrats in swing districts, and the reelections of many leading liberals, led some politicos to conclude that Americans do not want centrist leadership. This conclusion reinforces the Fox News-MSNBC view of the world as divided between good people – those who agree with me— and bad partisans—everybody else. Instead, the results reflect American structural anomalies, where moderates come from divided districts and extremists come from strongly partisan districts. During electoral tidal waves, the crucial swing voters veer left or right, wiping out moderates as extremists survive.
Yet with the end of the 2010 midterms marking the start of the 2012 presidential campaign, Barack Obama should worry that independent voters abandoned him en masse. It is now clear that Obama erred by fighting for health care reform before lowering the unemployment rate. And it is now clear that having the health care reform pass by such a partisan, polarizing vote, undermined Obama’s entire presidential leadership project. The twentieth century’s two greatest pieces of social legislation—the 1935 Social Security Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act—passed, after hard fights, with bipartisan support. That the twenty-first-century’s first great piece of social legislation passed without Republican support reflects Obama’s broader leadership failure.
Obama 2.0. must resurrect one of the most powerful messages—and successful tactics—which propelled his meteoric rise to the presidency, his lyrical centrism. Barack Obama did not just promise"hope and change," he promised a new kind of politics. In Audacity of Hope, Obama positioned himself as a post-partisan centrist who would resist Washington’s ways. Central to his appeal was his lyrical, multicultural nationalism, exemplified by his eloquent denunciation of the red-state-blue-state paradigm in his extraordinary keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic national convention. Americans did not just hire Obama to be president, they hired him to be that kind of a president, one who would reach out across the aisle, who would sing a song of national unity and purpose that was substantive, pragmatic, results-oriented, not just lofty and lovely.
Unfortunately, as president, Obama has stilled his own voice, and failed to reconcile with Republicans. True, Republicans share responsibility for being truculent and obstructionist. But true centrism requires finding that golden path, that middle ground. Instead of delegating the highly partisan congress to craft the health care reform, instead of negotiating so desperately to forge his Democratic coalition, Obama needed to deliver bipartisan support for such a monumental shift in America’s status quo. The Social Security and Civil Rights bills quickly became part of the national consensus, thanks to the consensus-building presidential leadership which ensured bipartisan passage. By contrast, abortion has festered as an issue for decades because the Supreme Court legalized women's right to choose, circumventing any kind of populist, consensus-building, democratic process.
Having demonstrated great potential as a cultural leader in 2008, Obama should spearhead a fight against the gong-show-governance emanating from cable TV coverage of American politics. Watching MSNBC on Election Night, watching Keith Olbermann and company shout away at Congressman Eric Cantor—who enjoyed giving back as good as he got—I was struck by the cable echo chamber’s violent distortions. Politicians who spend their time appearing on these shows forget that only a small percentage of Americans are watching. The pols...
By Gil Troy
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University. He is the author of"Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents" (Basic Books, 2008). His latest book, co-edited with Vincent J. Cannato, is"Living in the Eighties" (Oxford University Press, 2009).
Amid the claims and counterclaims regarding Ronald Reagan’s 1980 electoral victory, one clarifying contradiction emerges. Yes, Reagan exaggerated, alleging a mandate for his Reagan Revolution which never existed. Yet, when Reagan implemented a more muscular, more flamboyantly patriotic, up-with-America, down-with-the-Communists foreign policy, he was doing what the American people hired him to do.
Ronald Reagan began his presidency with a magic trick, conjuring a mandate he lacked. The election was tougher than he acknowledged; his victory margin thinner than it appeared. He won only 50.75 percent of the popular vote. The victory was also something of a fluke. After extended squabbling, Reagan and President Jimmy Carter finally debated on October 28. With Reagan’s silky-smooth, “There you go again,” performance, with America’s President reduced to quoting his 13-year-old daughter Amy on the importance of ending the nuclear threat, polls showed that Carter’s popularity dropped ten points within 48 hours after the debate. It was the most significant last-minute slide Gallup pollsters ever recorded.
On November 4, the Electoral College magnified the win as Reagan triumphed in 44 states, earning 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 49. Reagan pointed to the overwhelmingly red electoral map as proof of a landslide, affirming this broad mandate to rule. Yet it was essentially an ABC – Anybody But Carter – mandate. So many Americans soured on Carter’s tentative, apologetic debate performance after a year of disasters, especially the continuing Iranian hostage crisis.
Yet, despite this political sleight of hand overall, Reagan was on firmer ground in feeling that voters validated his particular foreign policy vision. When accepting the nomination at the Republican National Convention, Reagan blasted Carter’s defeatist foreign policy, condemning the “weakness, indecision, mediocrity, and incompetence” that suggested “that our nation has passed its zenith.” Reagan said he would regard his election ”as proof that we have renewed our resolve to preserve world peace and freedom — that this nation will once again be strong enough to do that.”
Anti-Communism provided the bedrock for Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy views. With his election, he would join an exclusive club of three world leaders who saw Soviet Communism as evil – and vulnerable. When Pope John Paul II, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and Reagan spoke candidly about their disgust for Communism, and their expectations that the Soviet Union would soon collapse, most people politely looked away, embarrassed by these deviations from common sense. Back in 1975, on one of his radio broadcasts, Reagan called Communism a form of “insanity,” an aberration, and wondered “how much more misery it will cause before it disappears.” In 1983, when he would call the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire,” one leading historian would call it the worst presidential speech ever.
Yet, Reagan’s anti-Communism resonated with Americans, within limits. To the extent that it was rooted in a push for more vigorous leadership, more national self-respect, less collective breast-beating, Americans cheered. Most Americans were tired of apologizing for Vietnam. Back in 1976, millions had yelled with Peter Finch, the fictional newsman in the Oscar-winning movie “Network,” “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.” Reagan himself would note signs of an ascendant patriotism independent of his calls, from the euphoria that greeted the “miracle on ice,” when the U.S. team beat the Soviet hockey team in the 1980 Winter Olympics to the swell of pride when the space shuttle launched successfully.
Carter’s reign, marked by stagflation, gas lines, and, the ultimate indignity, this endless Iranian hostage crisis, fed a yearning for national salvation, which Reagan offered. The drawn out struggle with the Iranian radicals – and the way Jimmy Carter turned into the “53rd hostage,” with so much of his last year shaped by the crisis, culminating with the humiliating failure of the rescue attempt, sobered the American people. Reagan’s call for more pride, more military funding, and more aggressive leadership resonated widely...
By Gil Troy
(Originally published in the Institute for Research on Public Policy's"Policy Options", Oct. 2010)
Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.
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,...
By GIL TROY, Freelance September 14, 2010
Gil Troy teaches history at McGill University.
As we mark the ninth anniversary of 9/11, it is worth contemplating the many valuable lessons this tragic episode has taught us.
It is hard to believe that nearly a decade has passed since that nightmarish September morning, when 19 Islamists sought to end the lives of tens of thousands of people -and succeeded in murdering 2,977 innocents of different faiths, different backgrounds, speaking different languages.
What is most surprising about that moment is how little things changed for the vast majority of us -except of course for the victims, their friends, and families. The refrain from the time"life will never be the same," was ultimately upstaged by the lure of the normal, our addiction to the regular routines of our lives. In the nine years since 9/11, You-Tube and Google, iPods and iPads, rush hours and vacation days, have proved more powerful than the disruptive force the Islamist mass murderers sought to unleash. Therein lies America's -and the West's -true victory over Al-Qa'ida.
Enough time has passed to draw some historical lessons from the attacks, including:
People can die, buildings can crumble, democracy lives:
In the age of terrorism we have learned how quickly one's individual destiny can change. After 9/11 in New York, after 7/7 in London, after so many terrorist bombings in Jerusalem, stories piled up about some people being in the wrong place at the wrong time through happenstance -and others avoiding that fate through equally random occurrences. One of the most unnerving things about 9/11 was that two massive buildings were destroyed -and others, including the Pentagon, sustained major damage. The volume of lives lost and the extent of the rubble demonstrated the intensity of the attacks -and terrified millions.
However, nine years later, with the population of the United States having exceeded 300 million, with billions living peaceful lives all over the world, the impact of these terrorist attacks seems diluted. Moreover, the attempt to target democracy failed completely. The United States continued to function. The idea of democracy -like the structures of American lives -proved far more powerful than the lethal tactics of Osama bin Laden.
Americans are more ambivalent about war than they -and others -realize:
It is, of course, easy to caricature Americans as a militaristic people, considering how large the defence budget is, how many wars the country has entered, and how effective Hollywood has been in romanticizing war -as well as the U.S. military impulse. Yet the Iraq War helped derail George W. Bush's presidency. In 2008, Barack Obama beat Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination by running as the antiwar candidate. This antiwar impulse was not new, nor did it only emerge after Vietnam. In fact, most of America's major wars triggered major opposition -an opposition that was most quieted by decisive victory rather than some aversion to pacifism.
Intolerance grabs the headlines, tolerance carries the day:
Since 9/11, we have heard much about"Islamaphobia." And there is, of course, a passionate debate going on about building a mosque near Ground Zero. But what is most remarkable is how few incidents of vengeance there were against Muslims and Arab-Americans in the United States after 9/11.
Despite being caricatured as a hyperpatriotic redneck, President George W. Bush spoke passionately and eloquently about the need to distinguish between Islam and Islamism, and between fellow Americans and a perverse minority of killers.
Even the current debate is being carried out most politely, with many opponents of the mosque acknowledging U.S. Muslims' freedom to worship but requesting that the Muslims themselves choose to change the venue.
The fact that America's Muslim and Arab communities have continued to thrive despite the Twin Towers, the Fort Hood massacre, and attempts to bomb Times Square and airlines loaded with holiday-going passengers, is a tribute to the United States, as is the fact that after 9/11, a man named Barack Hussein Obama won the presidency convincingly against a war hero and former prisoner of war, John McCain.
Islamist terrorism is nihilistic and self-destructive:
After 9/11, the conventional wisdom assumed that the U.S., along with its allies including Canada, would endure wave after wave of terrorist attacks and that ultimately the terrorists could win. It is striking how little faith so many had in democratic and Western resilience.
Nine years later, more Muslims than anyone else are targeted by fellow Muslims in suicide bombings.
Even the Palestinians have turned away from daily terrorists attacks as a tactic. It has become quite clear that the world's revulsion -and the West's pushback -had an impact. Terrorism has not disappeared but...