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The Big Idea in This Election

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Posted on Sep 11, 2012
AP/Carolyn Kaster

By Mark Heisler

(Page 2)

In today’s Tower of Babel environment, there are only a few marquee opportunities to be seen and heard, like Clinton’s late-night slot at the convention, which the networks that have cut back their coverage still carry (except for NBC, which cut away for a football game).

Worse, with officeholders demonized from their swearing-in, the audience regards few politicians as credible.

Amazingly, Clinton was one.

In 1992, when he was elected amid bimbo eruptions; or 2000, when he left office after avoiding impeachment for one more; or 2008, when his grousing about Obama during Hillary’s campaign suggested the Clintons were still all about the Clintons, the Big Dog could have read the Ten Commandments and gotten an argument.


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Now, 12 years after a prosperous term that seems like a simpler time in our history, Clinton stands resurrected in his no-longer-dough-faced incarnation as the nation’s wisest, wonkiest, folksiest, white-haired teddy bear.

It’s not that politicians seldom make sense. The problem is “sense” stands for so little unless the media can fit it into some Hollywood narrative that the audience will listen to.

Unfortunately, today’s narrative with Clinton as genius, bailing out a bumbling Obama, doesn’t account for real-life differences. It was Obama who got health care, Clinton who handed it to Hillary, who shut out the insurance industry, defying it to do its worst. It’s Obama who maintains a level of personal honor Clinton forfeited long ago.

A lot gets lost these days, like the possibility something bigger than another debate of top-down vs. bottom-up economics is at hand.

This election may be another landmark in the struggle that runs like a fault line through our history, having appeared as Hamiltonian Federalism vs. Jeffersonian Democracy; Northern mercantilism vs. Southern agrarianism; Eastern establishment vs. Southern and Western populism; TR/FDR activism vs. limited government; baby boomers vs. silent majority; and tea party vs. Occupy America.

Along the way, there have been enough twists, turns, redefinitions and realignments for the parties that started on one side to switch and switch back.

Abraham Lincoln’s GOP picked up Hamilton’s torch, insisting on a federally led union over Democratic-backed states rights.

The heirs of foes of centralized power, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan, became New Dealers.

A former New Dealer, Ronald Reagan, led the movement to shrink the federal government with the notable exception of its military.

Now we have the sons of the New Dealers, reborn as fiscal conservatives, while former Reagan Revolutionaries try to realize his vision without him.

Faced with a choice of moderating or going all the way, whether it was to Baghdad or Washington, D.C., “neoconservatives” stood their predecessors’ foreign policy on its head, discarding the principle of a narrowly defined national interest that made Robert Taft et al. leery of foreign adventures, or even participation in the U.N.

Unfortunately the test was the 2003 Iraq invasion, to find weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist.

Rather than retreat toward the middle, which would mean accepting elements of the hated Obama’s agenda, the GOP has dug in on this line with Ryan’s budget, which can be seen as the neoconservatives’ domestic policy, an utter rejection of the New Deal they never dared to pose. 

This obliges the GOP to renounce the mainstream positions of Dwight Eisenhower (new Democratic icon, as installed by Clinton in Charlotte) and Richard Nixon, challenging not only the controversial Obamacare but Medicare and Social Security, which stand as popular institutions.

Doing away with another conservative principle, the party of fiscal responsibility now insists on “dynamic scoring” in which optimistic assumptions are accepted as a given, as at Enron.

Nevertheless, with Romney, who had evolved and devolved too much to be seen as standing for anything, now tied to Ryan, this election is clearly about something.

If yesterday vs. tomorrow seems a simple choice, the competitive race suggests how split we are.

Of course, there’s a lot going on as our first African-American president seeks re-election in an age of economic dislocation, brought on by a communications revolution that enhances productivity and undermines employment while turning the press into a worldwide tabloid.

As political analyst David Gergen noted in 2008, Obama’s race is the elephant in the room. No one addresses it directly; indirectly, all bets are off, as controversies arise over the remarks of his (African-American) pastor, his middle name, his birthplace and eligibility for the office he already holds.

We don’t know how much of today’s zany political behavior is due to Obama’s mere presence. However, if you can’t say the GOP’s opposition is grounded in racism, you’d have to go back to Herbert Hoover, who took the blame for the Great Depression, or Lincoln, whose election prompted the South to secede, to see this level of skepticism.

If the 2008 campaign turned unseemly, with John McCain feeling himself obliged to defend Obama against the charge of being “an Arab,” this one could make it look like a warmup before the real blowoff.

With dueling media outlets offering alternate universes, nothing is off the wall. Romney still does birth certificate lines, as if Obama hadn’t long since provided the relevant document. As opposed to something that’s about reason and self-interest, our politics are more the joke baseball players pass down from generation to generation, with the big leaguer walking down the street with his girlfriend when he runs into his wife.

“Who are you going to believe,” he tells the missus, “me or your eyes?”

Republicans are at their own crossroads, about to learn if they can damn the torpedoes and keep steaming rightward, or must moderate—assuming they can without losing evangelicals and tea party supporters who have dominated recent elections, if not their presidential primary in 2012.

Happily, one side will prevail. Then the other can decide whether it wants to emigrate en masse or it’s worth it to stick around and see whether we can ever be one nation, indivisible, again.

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