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.
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 trust in office -- what to do when good people refuse to run for rational reasons? My answer always was that the campaign gives a taste of the presidency. If you -- and your family - are not willing to have your insides splayed out in public, the presidency is not for you and it is better to realize that sooner rather than later....
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.
We cannot undo history and we must move forward, from 2011, trying to minimize disruptions to populations while maximizing satisfaction on both sides. Rather than trying to freeze one random moment in historical time, demography and the current status quo should be our guides, tempered by sensitivity, creativity, and a touch but not too much historicity. Obama’s overlooked line about the “growing number of Palestinians [who] live west of the Jordan River,” explains why each of the two clashing people should have a state. Peace will work if it passes the test of what Obama called populism, working logically for many people today, not at some random point from the past.
Obama did speak beautifully about “a choice between hate and hope; between the shackles of the past and the promise of the future.” Alas, this speech did not do enough to buttress the forces of hope over hate, and by feeding the 1967 obsession, Obama himself was too shackled to one unhelpful perspective on the past.
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.