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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Wrong Lesson, Senator

Soon-to-be-former United States Senator from Utah, Bob Bennett, a three-term Republican senator who lost his party's nomination at the state GOP convention, has some thoughts for the Tea Party activists who beat the drums and brought out the delegates than ended his political career:

Jimmy Carter won the White House in 1976 by riding the wave of anger and disillusionment that followed Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon. Carter tapped into that anger with the slogan "I will never lie to you."...Four years later, however, he was a political pariah. Voters embraced Ronald Reagan because he wasn't Jimmy Carter, proving that good slogans do not necessarily produce good government. Unlike Carter, Reagan had more than slogans. He came to Washington with a clear plan to revive the economy and overhaul the tax code, revitalize the military, and, most important, boost the national spirit....There's a profound lesson in this for the Tea Party movement.

Bennett compares the Tea Party movement to the same movement which Carter was able to tap into in the wake of the Nixon scandals. Like Carter (or as he presents Carter, anyway), Tea Party activists push their slogans--against government spending, against high unemployment, against a supposedly out-of-touch federal government--with a simplistic moral fervor. And Bennett doubts that such zealous slogans will add up to much when the time for governing comes...in the same way that, in his view, Carter's slogans didn't add up t much either.

[W]hen the new members of Congress whom these slogans elect in November take office, the question becomes: Will they be Carter or Reagan?...As president, Carter was downright depressing. His famous "malaise" speech warned us that America's best days were behind us and suggested that we are a country in irreversible decline. Too many Tea Party speeches sound the same note, even as they invoke Ronald Reagan's name. They are wrong to do so, in my view, because Reagan never lost his optimism and his hope for the future. He was elected because he was good at slogans, but he succeeded as president because he focused on solutions.

I urge all of the Tea Partyers to follow Reagan, not Carter. If they want their movement to be more than a wave that crashes on the beach and then recedes back into the ocean, leaving nothing behind but empty sand, they should stop the "gloom talk." These are not the worst times we have ever faced, nor is the Constitution under serious threat....After all, we survived Jimmy Carter, didn't we?

Ha! Nice last shot there, Senator! I think it completely misses the reality of the historical record, though.

Bennett refers to Carter's famous speech (in which the word "malaise" never appears, by the way); I wonder whether he's ever read it. Yes, it's almost certain too pious, too earnest, to be taken seriously as a piece of presidential rhetoric (though, as I and others have defended the speech before, the fact is it was taken seriously, for a short time at least). However, the larger point is that, even if it was the case (and I would argue that this is a debatable point, but let's assume it for now) that Carter's moralistic approach to leadership was shallow and simplistic, his speech wasn't; on the contrary, the speech reflected a historically sensitive and brave willingness to confront difficult intangibles effecting America's civic culture, and called upon Americans everywhere to confidently shoulder the responsibilities of truly pursuing a common good. He said:

I want to speak to you first tonight about a subject even more serious than energy or inflation. I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy. I do not mean our political and civil liberties. They will endure. And I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might. The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence....The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America....Confidence in the future has supported everything else--public institutions and private enterprise, our own families, and the very Constitution of the United States. Confidence has defined our course and has served as a link between generations....

Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy....In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us....[T]here is a growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions. This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning....

We know the strength of America. We are strong. We can regain our unity. We can regain our confidence. We are the heirs of generations who survived threats much more powerful and awesome than those that challenge us now. Our fathers and mothers were strong men and women who shaped a new society during the Great Depression, who fought world wars, and who carved out a new charter of peace for the world. We ourselves and the same Americans who just 10 years ago put a man on the Moon. We are the generation that dedicated our society to the pursuit of human rights and equality. And we are the generation that will win the war on the energy problem and in that process rebuild the unity and confidence of America.

We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I've warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure. All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our Nation and ourselves.

Frankly, I would be delighted if the Tea Party activists did talk like this; it would be wonderful to discover that, in fact, at least some of them really did talk like Carter spoke, rather than the equally simplistic, equally moralistic--even by "conservative" measurements!--slogans that Reagan himself used repeatedly. And perhaps there are many such activists out there. But instead, at least on the basis of those activists making their voices most clearly heard, what we see in the bulk of those involved in Tea Party protests--and those challenging decent, responsible, establishment Republicans like Bennett--is something very far from the earnest lessons of Carter's focused examination of America's character (however poorly he himself executed those lessons). Instead, it is a lesson which teaches the value of a context-free, tantrum-prone, angry confidence in individualism--and therefore, a rejection of the compromises inherent in responsible democratic government. Mark Lilla described this aimless libertarianism as representing "a new political type: the antipolitical Jacobin. The new Jacobins have two classic American traits that have grown much more pronounced in recent decades: blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing—-and unwarranted—-confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers."

Surely, this isn't the gloom which Bennett (wrongly, I think) attributes to Carter; rather, it's downright...Reaganesque. If nothing else, it wasn't the spirit of Carter's moral seriousness which resulted in Bennett losing his job; it was the spirit of someone who was convinced, unreasonably, that anyone in government must be part of the problem. Bennett, far from encouraging those who come after him to adopt the attitude of his Republican hero, ought to be encouraging them to think twice about the insight of the man he beat.


Fine Art by Jennifer said...

I knew I liked you. Very nice and put together. Thanks.

Aloysius said...

The insight of Carter?

MH said...

it was the spirit of someone who was convinced, unreasonably, that anyone in government must be part of the problem.

Personally, I don't see why voting against every incumbent isn't the best course of action for every voter who isn't a government employee or a banker. Whatever happened, huge numbers of people clearly made big mistakes. Your odds of voting against somebody competent are pretty small. Also, if it was really necessary to bailout Wall Street, then the people who set-up those conditions need to get voted out for letting things get so bad. If it wasn't necessary to bailout Wall Street, then we need to vote out anybody who couldn't stop the bailout.

Baden said...

I enjoyed the post Russ.

Alan Avans said...

I found his loss at the hands of the Tea Party troubling on a number of counts. My primary concern its that it's a sign that Utah's Mormon culture is cracking, and I'm not looking forward to seeing what replaces it.

Having said that, the Senator picked on the wrong man. Reagan was boxed in and he no more got to accomplish what he set out to do than Carter did. In 1987 we saw the Reagan that existed in 1974 and that disappeared in 1981.

The Reagan Bennett remembers is not who Reagan wanted to be.