April 27, 2011
Equo ne credite, Teucri. Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentes
Do not trust the horse, Trojans! Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks, even bringing gifts.
It is an imperfect metaphor, but it's what came to mind when the news about Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour's decision to stay out of the 2012 presidential race made its way around the inner beltway on Monday, causing hearts to beat briskly while mouths and keyboards raced to catch up with the escalating cardiac cadences.
"Haley Barbour ultimately decided not to run for president after concluding that Barack Obama will be too tough to beat in a general election race . . . But while he saw a path to winning the nomination, the Mississippi governor . . . became gun shy when they looked at his prospects of prevailing against Obama and a likely united Democratic party behind him in the general election . . .." (Michael Isikoff, NBC News)
This graced an otherwise slow news day with an elephantine gift for the P-3 -- pundits, politicians, pollsters. Whether it is of the Trojan Horse variety remains undetermined for the announced, sure-to announce, sort-of announced, and now-I-might-announce candidates, but for pundits and pollsters it’s better than a sizzling prime rib eye served up at The Palm.
Here in the nation’s capital, the P-3 dines on a diet of this sort, and what follows after an abbreviated digestive period is "the narrative” -- the collective wisdom about "Why Haley Won't Run," on which NBC's Michael Isikoff is early out of the gate with the basic story line:
"Obama 2012 . . . Too tough to beat . . . Didn't want this race to be about race"
To say that it's a bit early to prophesy about what will happen between now and November 6th, 2012, much less Mother’s Day 2011, is to love understatement. And to imagine that the election of 2012 won't be another "change election" is to imagine that between now and Friday Prince William and Kate Middleton will elope.
Whether the change factor will reach the top of the ticket or shift the majority status in either legislative chamber is in the hands of the odds makers at this point. And in 19 months, the voters will decide.
As Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne wrote last week -- "What History Will Apply To the 2012 Election?" – three past elections offer intriguing options:
• 1984, when Ronald Reagan stormed back from a large polling deficit to a landslide victory
• 1988 when summer polls showed that Michael Dukakis might be on his way to the White House
• 1992 when the most prominent Democratic hopefuls stayed away because early polls showed George H. W. Bush to be unbeatable
Inside Republican Party circles, Barber's bowing out is big news, indeed, perhaps even ‘game-changing.’ But to borrow from Neil Armstrong’s first words spoken on the Moon, it was a big step for a big guy, but of little meaning to the country at large.
For in the midst of this season of speculation, the length and breadth of which are indeterminate, it is those long-gathering clouds over America's political horizon that should be of greatest concern, far larger in consequence than who occupies the White House.
To those who can 'stand the truth' it is the unsettling and all-too-familiar reality that public deeds of import are inexorably moving beyond the reach of our democratic institutions.
The distinguished foreign policy analyst, Fareed Zakaria, articulated the issue forthrightly in his book, "The Post-American World:"
"The problem today is that the American political system seems to have lost its ability to create broad coalitions that solve complex issues . . . has lost the ability for large-scale compromise, and it has lost the ability to accept some pain now for much gain later on.
"As it enters the twenty-first century, the United States is not fundamentally a weak economy, or a decadent society. But it has developed a highly dysfunctional politics."
Former Colorado Senator Gary Hart put it succinctly in his current blog entry, “I’m a republican:’
"We have moved to the far end of a democracy (my rights above all) at the expense of the republic (responsibilities and duties.)"
And in a path-breaking study of this phenomenon -- "The Big Sort: Why The Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart" -- by journalist, Bill Bishop, in conjunction with University of Texas professor emeritus, Robert G. Cushing, the antecedents of this dysfunctionality are evident in our migratory footprints:
"In 2004, the press was buzzing about polarization, the inability of the leaders of the two political parties to find even a patch of common ground . . . Meanwhile, unnoticed, people had been reshaping the way they lived. Americans were forming tribes, not only in their neighborhoods but also in churches and volunteer groups . . . people were creating new, more homogeneous relations. Churches were filled with people who looked alike and, more important, thought alike. So were clubs, civic organizations, and volunteer groups . . . What had happened over three decades wasn't a simple increase in political partisanship, but a more fundamental kind of self-perpetuating, self-reinforcing social division.
"Political leaders were growing more extreme during this period, as Democrats and Republicans in Congress became more ideological, less moderate, and more partisan."
So today’s news -- Haley Barbour isn't running -- clears the way for some, muddles it for others, and -- mostly -- causes us to turn away from the larger truths, the ones that actually spell the difference between a healthy republic and an aging democracy.
It’s pretty clear from the last few election cycles that American voters are fed up, fickle, and fearful – and of those three, it’s the “fear factor” that is most troubling.
Some live in fear of external terrorist threats from Al Qaeda and its kin, while others fear that globalism will inexorably erode the durability of America’s middle class, leaving us a nation with a noxious gap in personal income distribution -- our Gini coefficient, as think-tankers are wont to say.
Some fear the loss of a job and the accompanying prospect of long-term un-and-under employment, and the concomitant fear of losing their homes, decent medical insurance, money for their children’s education, the underpinnings of the “American dream.”
And in our most troubled urban communities, some parents fear that their children will either be victims of an under-resourced public school system or a violent death.
Underlying all these fears is a haunting sense that those America-specific mottos and metaphors that have defined the republic from its birth – E Pluribus Unum, American exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny, the American Dream -- are withering away, and that the institutions and practices created by the founders and nurtured and fostered by their next of kin and next of next of kin are showing signs of age or worse.
FDR’s admonition in his first inaugural address has never been more relevant than today. Best known for, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” it is speech that merits a full reading or rereading today.
It is both a poignant reminder that we have weathered economic and political storms of equivalent magnitude before; and an unstated interrogatory about the tensile strength of the republic, circa 2011 and beyond.