Politics & Policy

After the Midterms: Hope

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
America could be ready for leadership again.

The generally predicted, long-awaited, and richly deserved rout of Obamaism in what was its last election has been the most hopeful political event in the U.S. since George H. W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis in 1988. This latest blessed event was highlighted by the opening of the trap-door under Harry Reid and his disappearance with the speed of gravity as the serious impediment to American government that he has been these eight years as Senate majority leader. As has so often happened recently, the defeated party has responded with complacency tempered only by blinks and glottal noises of disbelief. The president has implied that he can ignore the results and do as he wishes by executive order and exercise of his foreign-policy power (an incongruous position to be adopted by someone who infamously abdicated his constitutional position of commander-in-chief to the entire Congress rather than enforce his loudly proclaimed red line against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s gassing of his own citizens). Mr. Obama professes to believe that the public suffered “an inexplicable tantrum” but is relieved that it is directed against Washington generally and against the inability of Washington as a bipartisan whole to take effective action.

A person should not be faulted for putting the best possible face on a defeat, but the shape of and the odds on the 2016 presidential-election campaign that has already begun will not pause for a day because of, or be altered in the slightest by, such wishful evasions. Next to the rejection of this failed administration and its congressional accomplices and apologists, the most hopeful current political event is the profusion of newly risen Republicans who incite at least a gleam of hope that the curtain may at last be descending on the Bush-Clinton-Obama drought of unsatisfactory government. This does not imply uniformly inadequate execution of the presidency since 1989, just a deepening pattern of it. George H. W. Bush was no Reagan, but he may, on balance, have been preferable to Clinton; George W. Bush was no Bill Clinton, but Obama has come close to inciting nostalgia for George W. Of course, Papa Bush and Bill Clinton were probably above-average presidents, and the electoral waters were muddied by a half-mad billionaire tyro, Ross Perot. But Clinton started the slide toward the subprime-mortgage disaster, opened the floodgates to terrorism by his feeble response to the Khobar, East African, and U.S.S. Cole outrages, and opened wide the artery of the current-account deficit.

These last seven presidential terms have been the longest drought between exceptionally capable or great presidents in U.S. history apart from the nine elections of senior Union army officers and Grover Cleveland that separated Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt — a series of presidents who did little governing and, as the times required, just let America be America. And George W. and Barack Obama have been the only unsuccessful presidents of the U.S. who have been reelected.

President Obama will be remembered for the magnificent feat of breaking the color barrier to the presidency, and, as a bonus, permanently protecting the public from gimcrack racist charlatans like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Beyond that, it is not true that nothing has been achieved in Washington in his time. Dodd-Frank, the Affordable Care Act, the increase of the national debt from $10 trillion in 2009 (after 233 years of American independence) to $18 trillion now, were all accomplished, and the nation will spend decades digging out from under all of it. The automobile industry was refinanced, but the debt holders and equity holders were put to the wall in favor of the co-authors of the debacle, that pillar of the Democratic party, the United Auto Workers.

In foreign policy, the “reset button” with the Russians unleashed the Kremlin’s most ambitious expansion since Stalin tore up his Tehran and Yalta commitments to a liberated Eastern Europe. The only restraint on Russia’s President Putin and his gangster regime in invading Ukraine has been provided by our be-robed, misogynistic, Wahhabi-jihadism–exporting allies in the House of Saud, as it has slashed the world oil price to punish Russia and Iran for their antics in Syria. Caving to the emasculated Assad over the red line and easing the sanctions on Iran have just confirmed the feeble impression made by Hillary Clinton’s spurious kowtowing to the world’s Muslims in her Islamophilic world telecast promoting the notorious falsehood that the U.S. ambassador in Libya had not been murdered by the terrorists Obama claimed to have expunged, but by a spontaneous protest against a privately produced American Islamophobic video.

The sound of the Clintons sharpening their knives is already deafening. They went through the obligatory period of homage and tribute to the man who took their party out from under them with his artful campaign to expiate white American guilt for what Mr. Lincoln called “the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil.” But surely America can do better than Hillary and Jeb. As readers of this page are aware, I believe that the Watergate crucifixion of a very successful administration infected the national media with presidenticidal rabies, poisoned the wells of public opinion, and durably tanked the quality of candidates, except for the halcyon Reagan-Bush duo that was already on its way to the White House when Watergate detonated.

Now there is room for prayerful hope that the American genius of renewal will assert itself and that a crop of presidential aspirants may be in the wings that will not remind us of 2012’s Rick (“Oops”) Perry, “Hermanator” Cain, Rick (“Pius IX”) Santorum, Newt (“the human grenade with the pin pulled”) Gingrich, Michele (“scourge of child vaccination”) Bachmann, or even the otherwise accomplished weathervane Mitt Romney and the brave blunderbuss John McCain. The Midwestern Republican governors — Rick Snyder (Michigan), John Kasich (Ohio), Bruce Rauner (Illinois), and Scott Walker (Wisconsin) if he can sound more like a president — could furnish a believable candidate. Walker has seen off the sleaziest Democratic assault: an attempted recall and a “John Doe” partisan criminal investigation. If he starts to look national and learns something about economics and foreign policy and recruits a professional team, he could be a man to watch.

New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, forgot that this opportunity only knocks once; and America doesn’t need one of its gonzo prosecutors in the White House. Christie didn’t pass Romney’s clean test for a VP candidate in 2012, and closing the George Washington Bridge to the people of Fort Lee, N.J., will not do as a foreign policy. But whoever the next president may be, including Hillary and Jeb (and they would probably both be more than adequate), he or she should deploy the anti-missile defense Obama should never have withheld from Eastern Europe and should be prepared to blast the Iranian nuclear military program. In the present vacuum of world leadership, even a somewhat purposeful American president would make dramatic progress.

No one should underestimate the problems that have accumulated: a towering deficit fueled by a bipartisan failure to address unsustainable entitlements; and a lawless prosecution service that terrorizes the country, including such highly placed innocents as Scooter Libby (Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff) and the late Senator Ted Stevens, wins 99.5 percent of its cases, 97 percent without a trial, and has turned the United States into a mockery of the Bill of Rights, and a teeming anthill of repressive hypocrisy with 48 million ostensible felons.

It should by now be clear that traditional economic remedies are not working and that Left and Right screaming at each other for more spending or less government are not, in themselves, likely to produce a useful dialectic. The population is aging, and fewer and fewer people are adding real value to anything as there are too many lawyers, consultants, transactional brokers, and superfluous academics.

Alan Greenspan, who is far from blameless in the catalogue of our recent woes, especially with regard to the proportions of the housing bubble and the consequent incontinence of the banking system, has made some useful points in his latest book, The Map and the Territory 2.0He notes that future income is discounted because of fear of inflation and sees nothing hopeful unless entitlements are made affordable to society. This will mean raising the retirement age, reducing benefits to those less in need of them, running the public sector a good deal more efficiently, and using the tax system to incentivize the more productive forms of employment.

George W. Bush’s notorious comment on the housing and financial crisis of 2008 that “the sucker [the U.S. economy] could go down” didn’t pass as uplifting rhetoric from the man where the buck stops, but it was accurate. The subsequent six years of pretending that simplistic solutions awaited those who ignored long-festering problems have only made the hard landing that is coming harder. The United States is a fundamentally strong country and is almost indestructible, but it cannot spend itself rich, stones don’t fall upwards, and as the Democrats discovered last week on a political level, even if they haven’t taken it on board fiscally, the power to tax is the power to destroy.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.


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