The Corner

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Drop the Optimism


Can we please dispense with the optimism trope? It’s been nearly 20 years since Reagan left office and it has become a cliché that his “optimism” is what made him such a great leader. Last night nearly every candidate touched this sacred relic in one way or another.

But consider: One of the reasons that Reagan’s optimism was such a tonic was that he took office at a time when things were genuinely, frighteningly bad. The inflation rate was 13.58 percent in 1980, and the unemployment rate was 7 percent. The Soviets had taken 13 new countries into their orbit in the previous decade. Europe seemed poised on the edge of something called Eurocommunism. And Latin American dominoes were starting to fall.

In Iran, a vicious theocratic regime was holding our embassy staff hostage and President Carter seemed utterly impotent.

People were wondering whether the presidency was too big a job for any one man and a number of academic papers suggested changing the constitution to correct this problem.

Reagan’s optimism in the face of all this seems almost irrational in retrospect. But of course, he proved fully capable of turning it all around. He succeeded. That’s the crucial thing. It’s not just that he had a sunny disposition (though that was a nice morale booster). He had a steely determination as well and his efforts were crowned with success.

George W. Bush is constantly stressing what an optimist he is too. But he has failed in important tasks he set for himself. So the optimism is nice, but irrelevant.

In any case, the whole optimism thing has become formulaic and hoary. Please let’s drop it.