Gary Hart: America’s Next Chapter

Roundup: Media's Take

THE novelties of race and gender have largely distracted the nation from the more profound aspect of the 2008 presidential election: This campaign presents the potential for a new cycle of American history.

The idea that American politics moves in cycles is usually associated with the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., but it has an even longer currency. Ralph Waldo Emerson noted the political oscillations between the party of memory and the party of hope, the party of conservatism and the party of innovation. Henry Adams believed that “a period of about 12 years measured the beat of the pendulum” during the era of the founders. Schlesinger, borrowing from his historian father, estimated that the swings between eras of public action and those of private interest were nearer to 30 years.

What matters more than the length of the cycles is that these swings, between what Schlesinger called periods of reform and periods of consolidation, clearly occur. If we somewhat arbitrarily fix the age of Franklin D. Roosevelt as 1932 to 1968 and the era of Ronald Reagan as 1968 to 2008, a new cycle of American political history — a cycle of reform — is due.

The Republican coalition — composed of the religious right on social issues, the radical tax cutters or “supply-siders” on economic issues, and the neoconservatives on foreign policy — has produced only superficial religiosity, a failed war and record deficits. Traditional conservatives, who are dedicated to resistance to government intrusion into private lives, fiscal discipline and caution on military interventions, have yet to re-emerge, and may not. The character of the next Republican Party will result from an intraparty debate that has yet to begin and might occupy a decade or more.

Democrats, meanwhile, have yet to produce a coherent ideological framework to replace the New Deal, despite an eight-year experiment in “triangulation” and an undefined “centrism.” Once elected, Barack Obama would have a rare opportunity to define a new Democratic Party. He could preside over the beginning of a new political cycle that, if relevant to the times, would dominate American politics for three or four decades to come.

Senator Obama has two choices. He can focus on winning the election to the exclusion of all else and, like Robert Redford in “The Candidate,” ask, “What do we do now?” after it is over. Or he can use his campaign as a platform for designing a new political cycle and achieve a mandate for starting it....
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John Olerud - 7/1/2008

Calling the war in Iraq a failure despite the stunning progress of the last twelve months amazes me. If anyone supporting the war can receive the label Neo-Con then those ignoring the success in Iraq since last spring should receive the label Neo-Copperhead. The current Democratic idealism reminds me of the vision of George McGovern. C-Span played George McGovern's 1972 acceptance speech last night. His call for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam with troops emboldened the enemy as much as Jane Fonda’s visit to Hanoi. Blind idealism makes a poor substitute for real-politik in a dangerous world. Woodrow Wilson's idealism was no match for the reality of the Mexican Revolution. Jimmy Carter's idealism was no match for the reality of the Soviet invasion or Afghanistan or the Iranian Revolution. President Clinton's idealism was a total focus on the domestic agenda at the cost of isolationism from the world stage that by his own words contributed to Rwanda. It also led to repeated attacks on Americans around the globe and in the continental United States for the first time since Pancho Villa. If the current war’s dramatic reduction of attacks on American civilians is a failure then we need more of it.

A better description of the cycle of American politics portrays Americans getting tired of the boring routine of hard work, intestinal fortitude, and common sense in favor of brief interludes that promise utopia. The problem is that utopian dreams like those of Emerson ended in failure in reality. Machiavelli grasped human nature more effectively than anyone, and in a war I want Machiavelli in charge of protecting my family and property more than Emerson.