Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama Swings the Pendulum to the Left

A couple of years ago, my wife gave me a key fob with an LCD display that ticks off the days until President Bush leaves office. At the time, the day seemed so far off, I couldn't bear to look at it. Today, I see that it says "75" and we can be assured that the new president will not carry on the Bush legacy.

Barack Obama's victory over John McCain did not occur simply because the Republicans ran a poor campaign (although...Palin? Seriously, what were you thinking?). The victory is really about a philosophical message that ran out of steam and never lived up to its promise. I can't help but think that what happened to the Republicans over the last 28 years was not unlike what happened to the Democrats between the 1930s and the 1960s. The country was solidly Republican all through the 1920s, but Herbert Hoover's inability to deal with the Great Depression forced the country to try something more radical by electing Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It can be argued that the flurry of new legislation that FDR pushed through Congress never really did anything to end the Depression, but that was beside the point. FDR's confidence, energy, and charismatic charm gave people hope and strengthened the perception that the USA was still a great country with her best years still ahead, and perception can go a long way in motivating people to bring that vision to reality.

The New Deal philosophy of FDR carried on even during the 1950s. Despite having an enormously popular two-term Republican president, many of the once radical concepts from the 30s, like Social Security and strong labor unions, were by then commonly accepted as normal birthrights. It wasn't until the administration of Lyndon Johnson that the wheels fell off of the New Deal train. If FDR's programs were a flurry, Johnson's New Society was a blizzard and the country was fatigued by the onslaught of social change. Rising budget deficits, difficulties in the economy, and a war that was going on too long and consuming to much in national lives and treasure made Lyndon Johnson one of the most hated men in America. His own staff could not put together one public event that was not heavily peppered with protestors and hecklers.

Johnson saw the writing on the wall and chose not to seek another term. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey chose to run in his place. Although he was a decent man and a fine public servant, he couldn't distance himself from the Johnson policies that he had supported for so many years. The New Deal was old and not looking like much of a deal anymore. Americans swung to the relative calm of the Republican Party.

Had it not been for Watergate, Nixon could've led the country into a period of new conservatism, but it was not meant to be. The torch was instead picked up by Ronald Reagan, an actor who could sell a new vision of America just as easily as he sold Borax on Death Valley Days. Reagan inherited a country in a deep economic crisis from President Jimmy Carter, the Democrats' version of Herbert Hoover. Reagan proposed a new approach to government through lower taxes and spending cuts to balance the budget. He cut taxes, but lacked the will to cut spending, creating even greater deficits than before. With the exception of a few boom years in the middle of his presidency, he left office with the economy in much the same condition as he had found it, but as with FDR, this meant little. Reagan made Americans feel good about themselves again. He saw the world through the lens of an MGM Andy Hardy movie, and he was charismatic enough to sell a large chunk of the country on the same delusion. As I said, perception goes a long way.

The 1990s were boom years, fueled by young entrepreneurs who believed in the conservative philosophy that Americans could build their own future without government handouts. The last decade of the 20th century saw the fulfillment of the Reagan philosophy, even though it was presided over by a Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Clinton was the best Republican the Democrats ever produced, balancing the budget, reforming welfare, and stimulating an economic boom like none seen since the Industrial Revolution. And then came George W. Bush....

While Clinton was conservatism wrapped in a palatable humanist coating, Bush 43 was hardcore conservatism wrapped in an incompetent boob. While he started with some good ideas about lowering taxes and reforming education, he was soon in way over his head with 9/11. Instead of strengthening our borders and relentlessly pursuing Osama Bin Laden, George W. chose to exploit America's fears by getting them to sign off on his personal adventure in Iraq to prove to his father that he could finish the job Bush 41 couldn't. More wasted American lives and treasure. The balanced budgets were gone, the surplus turned into a huge deficit, and Osama Bin Laden was still free after more than seven years.

And while the Republicans continued to talk about smaller government and lower taxes, they signed off on a nearly trillion dollar nationalization of America's major financial institutions, just so their corporate fat cat friends didn't have to go down with the ship they so carelessly drove into the iceberg. The message didn't add up to reality. We could no longer ignore the little man behind the curtain. The emperor truly had no clothes.

So now the pendulum swings once again to the left. I can't say whether Barack Obama will be a great president or not. His inexperience leads me to believe that there will be many bumps ahead. But Obama was able to motivate a large number of young Americans to get involved in the political process. He made them believe in a future that looked more like what they wanted it to be rather than what the Baby Boomers created for them. And perception goes a long way.