We live in serious times. Our country has a number of problems with no easy solutions. Our representatives face a series of tough choices that require bold political leadership: the unemployment rate remains over 9%, the government is running another trillion dollar deficit, our foreign policy is incoherent.
The political class appear incapable of handling the challenges we face. Right now, both parties look like they’d prefer to bicker at one another and prepare for Election 2012 rather than doing what divided government is supposed to—compromise and govern.
Americans deserve better. We should have politicians who recognize the moment we’re in. Our leaders should act more like statesman, and less like clowns. So wrote Peggy Noonan, three years ago in Patriotic Grace. Noonan, the Wall Street Journal columnist and former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, was coming to grips with the Bush years and looking ahead to the challenges facing the next administration.
Patriotic grace is an appreciation for the times we live in. It is a call for internal cohesion, where the country comes together and solves the problems of the day. Noonan yearns for the unity the country had in the aftermath of 9/11. In an age of terror, she believes all Americans must look out for one another and fears that partisanship will tear us apart and weaken the nation.
Republicans did that during the Bush years. Karl Rove made sure Republicans used national security as a hammer to pound Democrats in the 2002 mid-term elections. The GOP labeled Democrats “weak on defense” and “soft on terror” throughout that election cycle on their way to recapturing the Senate and controlling both the executive and legislative branches. Republicans owned Washington from January 2003-January 2007.
Mr. Rove’s strategy was a symptom of what politics has become in the 21st century: win at all costs. Ms. Noonan believes politics has become too-all encompassing in American life. She thinks it has replaced faith and is now an existential matter. When people define themselves as liberal or conservative first, they lose their willingness to disagree with one another. When one deviates from the party line, one is accused of heresy and labeled an apostate.
Norman Podhoretz described his experience when political differences cost him friendships in Breaking Ranks and Ex-Friends. Podhoretz and many neo-conservatives severed ties with many of their liberal comrades when they moved from the left to the right during the late 1960s.
Garry Wills had a similar experience. The young National Review writer became increasingly liberal as he reported on the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. Once Wills left the conservative journal, he and William F. Buckley, Jr. didn’t speak for decades.
The Bush years fractured the country and polarized the electorate. Many liberals never accepted George Bush as a legitimate president after his narrow victory in the 2000 election. When he won re-election in 2004, Democrats believed voting irregularities in Ohio helped the incumbent and prevented John Kerry from reaching the White House.
Hyper-partisans doubt that their opponents act in good faith. When looking at the other side, they see an evil caricature. Democrats never forgave Richard Nixon for his role in the Alger Hiss case, and prevented his health care plan (which was more comprehensive than Obamacare) from becoming law. Republicans always saw Bill Clinton as a big-government liberal, rather than the politician who moved the Democrats to the center and signed welfare reform into law.
Noonan believes Bush hatred resulted from the personalization of his administration. She points to the Mission Accomplished moment, when Bush landed on a naval carrier off the coast of California to announce the end of military operations in Iraq in the spring of 2003. Lincoln never did a victory lap after Appomattox, nor did Roosevelt after D-Day.
Bush certainly had chutzpah. He went against conventional wisdom on a number of issues, displaying the courage of his convictions. The surge in Iraq proved to be the great military success of his second term. But Congressional Republicans killed both his immigration plan and his social security privatization proposal.
Critics claimed Mr. Bush was a man paralyzed by ideology. His successor is guilty of that, as well. Mr. Obama inherited a country in economic free-fall. He outsourced an $830 billion stimulus bill to Congress. Instead of targeted legislation written by Keynesian economists, the bill was written by Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. Throughout 2009, with the country still hampered by massive unemployment, Democrats spent their time focused on health-care legislation.
Neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Obama has shown patriotic grace, or the ability to lead during serious times. Both expanded the entitlement state (Bush with his prescription drug benefit Medicare Part D and Obama with the Patient Protection Affordable Care Act) when out-of-control entitlement spending, coupled with retiring baby boomers, threaten the nation’s long-term fiscal future.
Mr. Bush failed to get his social security proposal through. Mr. Obama has no entitlement reform initiative of his own; instead, he’s joined in with Congressional Democrats and demonized Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform proposal.
In so doing, the president is continuing the bickering politics that have defined America for thirty years. Call it the age of hardball, when both sides yell at one another and issue their talking points for the day. This has coarsened our political culture and made its participants ugly and reprehensible.
We need patriotic grace and deserve what Mr. Obama promised: change in Washington. Not change of an ideological nature, but a change in the tone and temperament of our leaders. We have real problems that require solutions. We don’t need politicians who kick the can down the road. Instead of demonizing one another, maybe they should listen and find common ground on the important issues of the day.