What America Needs Now

Author: David M. Shribman

What is to be done?

That was the title of a fiery manifesto the lonely revolutionary lenin wrote 110 years ago. It was a question for his time and for every time of trouble. And while this may not be an era of revolution, it surely is an era of challenge —— and grave danger —— both in the economic and national-security realms.

In the pages that follow, Notre Dame faculty members set forth in sharp, eloquent terms what is to be done by the president and what he should say in his first major address before Congress. The president would be well-served to linger on the contents of the suggestion box assembled in Notre Dame, Indiana, but he likely will not see them. More’s the pity.

Professors, of course, are inclined to add two terrifying words to the questions they set for their exams at semester’s end: Be specific. Presidents need to be specific, too, particularly when they deliver their agendas to Capitol Hill. But at this time mere specifics aren’t enough. They are, as the scientists on the faculty would tell you, necessary but not sufficient. We need to tackle the details, to be sure, but first we need to settle, or at least engage seriously, some very big questions that have lingered without resolution in the national conversation.

So before we decide what is the optimum level of the taxation of capital gains, whether the age of eligibility for Medicare ought to be raised, how big a tax credit businesses with fewer than 50 employees should get to cover health-care premiums, and whether the mortgage-interest deduction should be phased out, let’s look at some really big questions. Such as:

How do political figures adjudicate between conviction and compromise?

The phrase “courage of our convictions” tumbles effortlessly off the lips, and we sure have seen a lot of that in recent years: lawmakers and other political figures who sign pledges and hew to them, who hold their opinions with fierce determination, and who view compromise with the same disdain Margaret Thatcher held for the “wets” in the Conservative Party.

Then again, this is a country whose beloved Constitution was created by a series of compromises, including one that from the start earned the modifier “great” — the Great Compromise of 1787 that gave us a Senate with two members from each state and a House of Representatives whose state delegations are determined by population. Other compromises have been important parts of our history, including the Compromise of 1850, which, flawed as it was, contained five elements that put off civil war for a decade. One of the signature citizens of 19th century America, Henry Clay, himself earned the adjective “great,” and as a result the Great Compromiser is remembered today as one of the outstanding lawmakers of all time.

In Profiles in Courage, Senator John F. Kennedy gave equal honor to both the men of conviction and the men of compromise. In speaking of the lawmakers he selected for his 1955 classic look at the Senate, he said: “Some demonstrated courage through their unyielding devotion to absolute principle. Others demonstrated courage through their acceptance of compromise, through their advocacy of conciliation, through their willingness to replace conflict with co-operation. Surely their courage was of equal quality, though of different caliber.”

The principal challenge facing the United States in the second decade of the 21st century is to adjudicate between the two social goods of conviction and compromise. In Profiles in Courage, Kennedy struggled with this issue and seemed to settle on the notion that political figures should engage in “compromises of issues, not of principles,” arguing, “We can compromise our political positions, but not ourselves.” This is a debate Kennedy had with himself. It is a debate we must have as a nation, and the new year is a good time to start.

Will the American people give their president enough room to change his mind?

We have just completed a political campaign that was nasty and brutish but not short. Many Americans, including those among us who take politics as a vocation or avocation, simply could not wait until it would end, so odious were the advertisements and so duplicitous were the voter appeals. Both candidates found themselves boxed into corners of their own making, and now the president is a prisoner of his own rhetoric. My guess is that on the morning after his inauguration the president may awaken in the White House, look in his second-floor mirror and not recognize his own profile.

Margot Asquith, the wife of the man who was prime minister of the United Kingdom precisely a century ago, once described Winston Churchill, the consensus choice as the greatest historical figure of the 20th century, as a “man of transitory convictions.” No one admires a politician who, in the manner described by Lillian Hellman, cuts his conscience to fit the fashion of the season. But can we learn something from the example of Churchill, who served in Parliament from two different parties and who headed a coalition government that presided over victory in Europe in World War II?

The view from behind the desk in the Oval Office is a lot different from the view behind the podium at a campaign breakfast or late-night rally. For that reason, is it wise to freeze our political figures and their campaign vows, or might we allow the warmth of the White House fireplace to allow those vows to melt a bit — and to allow the president to be a work in progress?

Perhaps a story from the Franklin Delano Roosevelt years might be appropriate here. Governor Roosevelt traveled to Pittsburgh in the 1932 campaign and delivered an ardent appeal for a balanced budget and a 25 percent cut in federal spending. Once he was president, he saw that neither was possible and that, in fact, the opposite was preferable. He was squeamish about breaking his promise and asked his speechwriter, Samuel Rosenman, what to do about the speech he had given only the previous September. The answer came back swiftly: “Deny you were ever in Pittsburgh.”

Is partisanship such a good idea, and are we paying the price for ideologically aligned political parties?

For decades American political scientists, including a future president, Woodrow Wilson, bemoaned the state of U.S. politics. We had two mushy parties that stood for almost nothing, with a rump of conservatives in the Democratic Party and a wing of liberals in the Republican Party. Some Republicans were more liberal than the most conservative Democrats. The whole thing made no sense.

Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t think it made much sense either, and he tried to purge his own party of the conservatives who were such reluctant warriors in the New Deal. He went to war against Walter F. George of Georgia, Ellison D. “Cotton Ed” Smith of South Carolina and Millard E. Tydings of Maryland, and he was able to defeat none of them. He was lucky his purge failed. Many of the strongest skeptics of the Roosevelt domestic agenda became strong advocates of his foreign policy. Had his purge succeeded, he might not have won support for Lend-Lease, which provided material support to the Allies before the United States officially entered World War II, and the world might be a different place today.

And FDR learned his lesson. Two days after war began in Europe (and more than two years before war would reach our own shores), Roosevelt issued this remarkable appeal, inconceivable today: “Let me make the simple plea that partisanship and selfishness be adjourned; and that national unity be the thought that underlies all others.”

Only a dozen years after Roosevelt’s ill-conceived purge, an article called “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System” appeared in the American Political Science Review, a publication revered on university campuses but generally ignored everywhere else. This article assailed a political system where Harry F. Byrd of Virginia and James Eastland and John Stennis, both of Mississippi, could represent their states as Democrats in the Senate even though they were devout conservatives, and where Clifford P. Case of New Jersey and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. of Massachusetts could be Republicans, though they could accurately be described as liberals.

Today the most conservative Democrat is more liberal than the most liberal Republican, which gives us the ideologically aligned parties that FDR and the American Political Science Review wanted so badly. But it also may be one explanation for the political paralysis we see in Washington — a paralysis deplored by everybody in the capital but addressed by nobody there.

Let’s examine another example. Today hardly anybody looks with nostalgia at the 91st Congress, which sat from 1969 to 1971, a period of upheaval throughout American life and a period of partisan strife in Washington, where Richard M. Nixon had become president after a paper-thin victory over Hubert H. Humphrey and where the Republican president faced an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress. It was a time of bitterness and strife.

And yet that Congress established the Council on Environmental Quality and began environmental-impact statements; created an airport trust fund; approved landmark anti-racketeering legislation; made major contributions to urban mass-transit systems; created Amtrak; established OSHA; extended the Clean Air Act; and passed the highly controversial measure providing the president with power to stabilize prices and wages. The fact that the Senate included Democratic conservatives such as Allen J. Ellender of Alabama and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Republican liberals such as Jacob K. Javits of New York and Charles “Mac” Mathias Jr. of Maryland is almost certainly not a coincidence. Lawmakers were routinely exposed to party colleagues with clashing ideologies, and House and Senate leaders were fluent in the politics of reconciling differences.

Neither is true today. The major economic-security measures of the last century, Social Security (1935) and Medicare (1965), were passed with votes from members of both parties. The major civil-rights measures of the 1960s were approved with support from both Republicans and Democrats. But the health insurance bill known as Obamacare won not a single Republican vote. It stands alone as a major legislative touchstone with single-party support, and it is
a symbol of how far and how fast we have departed from a political system that was at once inexplicable . . . and indispensable.

Not that the past was free of partisan rancor. The level of politics was so low in the 19th century that Mark Twain was moved to write:

“Look at the tyranny of party — at what is called party allegiance, party loyalty — a snare invented by designing men for selfish purposes — and which turns voters into chattels, slaves, rabbits, and all the while their masters, and they themselves, are shouting rubbish about liberty, independence, freedom of opinion, freedom of speech, honestly unconscious of the fantastic contradiction; and forgetting or ignoring that their fathers and the churches shouted the same blasphemies a generation earlier when they were closing their doors against the hunted slave, beating his handful of humane defenders with Bible texts and billies, and pocketing the insults and licking the shoes of his Southern master.”

There was a reason the Framers excluded the word “party” from the Constitution.

How do we hear the hoofbeat of history?

Otto von Bismarck said great leaders hear the hoofbeat of the horse of history, and, in fairness, American leaders of this generation and of those who came earlier have listened carefully for that distant sound. It is never easy to hear it.

Lincoln heard that hoofbeat in part because he consulted the depths of his own soul and conducted his search for justice in public. Both Roosevelts heard them. So did Kennedy, who gave voice to American idealism and purpose in his speeches and governed with a profound sense of history derived from deep youthful reading. (Jacqueline Kennedy would say in an interview recorded shortly after her husband’s death: “He’d read walking, he’d read at the table, at meals, he’d read after dinner, he’d read in the bathtub. . . . He really read all the times you don’t think you have time to read.”)

The principal challenge facing the United States in the second decade of the 21st century is to adjudicate between the two social goods of conviction and compromise.

Modern presidents do read. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush consumed presidential biographies with real interest. It’s important that their successors follow suit. But it’s also important that members of Congress slow down and think as well.

We may believe that history moves faster today than it did in earlier generations. That may not be so. It galloped between 1939 and 1945 in Europe, and it did in the 1960s in the American South. But most of the time, despite the passing passions of every era, history is more like a gentle canter, and we need to think about how, in an age where the demands of the news media and fundraising keep our leaders moving at a frantic, frenzied pace, to slow down and permit contemplation about the issues sketched here and about some of the other tensions that have defined our national life.

We face new issues in the 21st century, and our leaders — and we ourselves — must pause to contemplate them as we continue to wrestle with ancient questions. So we must consider the implications of the biomedical and communications revolutions along with such evolving topics as the role of government in society. And: What is the place of religion in the public square? How does a nation built on individualism construct a caring, gentle community? How do we balance our twin values of order and freedom?

These are questions that matter. This is what is to be done.

David Shribman is the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.