Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
News reports from up north said that Canadians suffered from a severe case of “election envy.” Many Canadians wished their candidates were more colorful, their campaigns were more exciting. It seems that many Canadians wished their elections were, dare we say it, more American.
Yes, even though most Americans did not notice, Canada just finished its own national elections. The incumbent Prime Minister Stephen Harper, riding high in the polls, announced the elections on September 7, eight months and fours days after the Iowa caucus and nearly sixteen months after Democrats hosted 2008’s first primary candidates’ debate. Canadians voted on October 14 three weeks before Americans finally voted. Harper was returned to office, although the stock market implosion deprived him of the majority in parliament he sought.
One exceptional phenomenon in the race was that more Canadians than usual admitted their feelings of inadequacy vis a vis the Americans, at least electorally speaking. Canadians – like so many Americans – have been swept up by the 2008 campaigning drama, scrutinizing the Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton soap opera, wondering how different John McCain might be from George W. Bush, alternately fascinated and appalled by the political rookie of the year, Sarah Palin. Besotted by European-style pretensions to cosmopolitanism, Canadians like to pretend they are not nationalistic. They believe that unlike their American neighbors, they have evolved, beyond such primitive feelings. Yet conversations about the United States inevitably bring out Canadians’ inner chauvinist. Canadians assert their patriotism by caricaturing America as a land of gun-toting, health-care-deprived red state-rednecks. Thus, this admission of election envy was surprising and significant.
The green-eyed view of the land of the red, white, and blue makes sense when you compare the leading candidates in both races. Barack Obama’s eloquent, historic quest to become America’s first black president induces goosebumps, while John McCain’s trajectory from five and half years suffering in the “Hanoi Hilton” to the cusp of living in the White House is cinematic. On the Canadian side, the incumbent prime minister who called the election, Stephen Harper, of the Conservative Party, is a steadfast Canadian bloke, as solid as an oak, as charismatic as the country he leads. The first great campaign controversy he triggered stemmed from donning a baby blue sweater for a campaign photo op at a suburban home. Critics felt it was phony from such a jacket-and-tie kind of guy. And he was the exciting candidate running. Harper’s main rival, Stephane Dion, heading the Liberal Party, is a colorless academic – at the risk of being redundant – whose mediocre English speaking skills only provide a partial excuse for his lack of campaigning talent. A fierce defender of Canada’s federal union, he is even less popular in his French-speaking home province, Quebec, where they can understand what he says, than he is in what locals call ROC, the rest of Canada.
Still, despite the Canadian candidates’ lack of flash, and despite campaign rules that American progressives fantasize would turn our pols into Solons and Solomons, Canadians endured a nasty battle. This was the third election in four years – and the current Conservative government was and remains a minority government. As Americans know too well, divided polities and tight races cause intense political combat, no matter how noble the candidates’ intentions. Moreover, operating in a parliamentary system, Canadian prime ministers lack the awe-inspiring majesty and physical insulation the American president enjoys. For all their reputed niceness, Canadians have a vigorous tradition of questioning, even heckling, the prime minister in Parliament. And the Canadian televised debates, which are much less choreographed with far less journalistic interference than American debates, degenerated into shouting matches with charges of “liar” aired.
Americans and Canadians share a common embarrassment in that both countries have among the Western world’s lowest voter turnout rates, hovering around sixty percent. For Americans, that rate represents a recent surge; for Canadians, a disturbing drop. And yet, the United States and Canada are two of the world’s safest, richest, and freest democracies. Just as George W. Bush learned in Iraq and in Gaza that it takes more than a vote to make democracy succeed, North America’s frustrating, often ferocious, and frequently alienating politics shows that it takes more than complaints about voting and campaigning to deem a democracy a failure. Maybe, just maybe, we love to complain about the intensity of electoral battles – but love the fights even more.
While rituals help us navigate life's highs and lows, often elevating our actions, they also risk imprisoning us in rote behaviors. Concession speeches and victory speeches are usually mechanical, more formulaic than transcendent, because everyone knows that the speech-maker is play-acting. Few losers or winners are as gracious as their election night speeches suggest.
Happily, both Barack Obama and John McCain rose to the occasion, ending the drawn-out, often bitter 2008 campaign on a high note. McCain conceded with the grace and non-partisanship for which he had been famous – and which often seemed MIA during his campaign. Hopefully, he will honor his constructive vow to support the president-elect. McCain could be an essential ally in the Senate, and could help a President Obama lead from the center, as he needs to do. In America, we lack the institution of the leader of the opposition. All too often, losing nominees vanish from the scene. Neither Al Gore nor John Kerry offered the kind of national and party leadership they should have following their respective losses, considering how many millions of people supported them. Although he is not the Senate majority leader, John McCain could play Lyndon Johnson to Obama’s Dwight Eisenhower, replicating the best aspects of that cross-the-aisle senator-president relationship that produced bipartisan triumphs in the late 1950s, including launching NASA.
For his part, Obama's speech was masterful. Although it started a tad grandiose, as he associated his personal triumph with America’s redemption, the rest sparkled. Understanding the daunting challenges ahead, he called, Franklin D. Roosevelt-style, for a spirit of community and self-sacrifice. Acknowledging the more than 48 million voters who voted against him, he reached out to his opponents. And, distancing himself from the Bush Administration, Obama also appealed to the good people around the world listening in – while warning America’s foes not to underestimate him. As an added bonus for historians, his story about Ann Nixon Cooper, the 106-year-old African American woman who voted for him, offered a wonderful trip-tych of twentieth century history, punctuated by the supposedly"timeless" but actually quite contemporary and Obamian credo"Yes We Can."
Many of us who study the presidency, are suckers for charismatic leaders singing a compelling, optimistic song. The office’s unique mix of king and prime minister makes generating hope part of the skill set for a successful presidency. The hope that a Franklin Roosevelt or a Ronald Reagan brought to the American people boosted the country’s sense of well-being as well as each leader’s popular and historical standing. We need an arm-twister-in-chief to get things done, and a cheerleader in chief to make us feel good about our country and ourselves.
The outpouring of emotion when Obama clinched his victory was thrilling. Little more than a decade ago, when O.J. Simpson was found innocent of two murders, cameras recorded cheering blacks and morose whites, emphasizing a split-screen America. On this Return Night, the cameras showed blacks and whites crying together, laughing together, celebrating together, hoping together, in a tableau of healing.
You would need a heart of stone not to be moved by watching the joy that swept America – but you need a head of straw not to worry about just how Obama will succeed. His calls for unity will only last if he understands that he must govern in the same expansive and moderate spirit his speech stirred.
Hope is like a balloon, able to entrance and elevate but also easily over-inflated or easily destroyed by just the right pin prick. Politics itself is an odd mix of noble aspirations with ruthless ambition, high-minded ideals with thuggish tactics. Placing too much hope on any one mortal invites disappointment. Sixteen years ago, a young, charismatic candidate came, quite literally, from a place called Hope. Within weeks of his election, Bill Clinton had frittered away much of the positive emotion surrounding his candidacy, primarily by backpedaling on the gays in the military issue, which stemmed from an off-the-cuff Andrea Mitchell question he should have dodged. Amid the other great challenges Barack Obama faces is the danger of disappointing the millions who have placed so much faith in him.
Still, all these worries vanished on Election Night, albeit temporarily. In the classy way McCain and Obama buried the hatchet, the goals of Return Day were achieved, the rivals unleashed the spirit of patriotic and bipartisan healing. May it prove contagious – and lasting.
I agree with three of Allan Lichtman's four "simple rules" suggesting how Barack Obama could be another Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, among others, also knew to"Strike Early." Americans' desire to see their new president succeed gives an administration a great launching pad."Bringing the People With You" is essential in a democracy. Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill described Americans' insistence in 1981 that he give Ronald Reagan a chance to succeed."Thinking Big and Broadly" is the example FDR set, and other successes such as John Kennedy followed. I lost Professor Lichtman on his fourth rule"Don't Govern from the Middle." In fact, Obama should lead from the center - but as a muscular moderate not a spineless centrist.
Lichtman builds his case against moderation by mentioning a grab bag of mediocre presidents. Actually, the greatest presidents including FDR led from the center. Being a muscular moderate entails having core principles, thinking big, but mastering the art of compromise too. Franklin Roosevelt understood that, as did the other president whom Lichtman identifies as a success, Ronald Reagan.
To understand Roosevelt as a moderate we have to recall the historian's favorite text - context. When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in March, 1933, America's prospects looked bleak, radicals demanded revolution."Mr. President, if your program succeeds, you'll be the greatest president in American history," an admirer told Roosevelt."If it fails, you will be the worst one." Roosevelt responded:"If it fails, I'll be the last one." Against that backdrop, Roosevelt's reforms were pioneering but temperate. He preserved private property. He restored American capitalism. The American welfare state he created was a stretch considering America's past, but a far cry from European varieties, let alone the Soviet model so many American intellectuals desired.
In the historian Richard Hofstadter's apt metaphor, FDR was a nimble quarterback, always scrambling but usually remaining within America's constitutional boundaries. Perhaps Roosevelt's greatest failure - his attempt during his second term to pack the Supreme Court - resulted from running out of bounds. The Court-packing scheme - adding up to six new justices for each justice over seventy - failed because Roosevelt overestimated his own power and the American people's appetite for revolution. This miscalculation set back the New Deal - but taught FDR a valuable lesson. When World War II broke out in Europe, Roosevelt was a model muscular moderate - advancing forward in an important direction, toward intervention, but always staying half a step ahead of the American people, rather than outrunning them.
Similarly, Ronald Reagan proceeded more cautiously than conservatives hoped and liberals feared. From the start of his administration, Reagan demonstrated that he was not the president of the Republican Party or its conservative wing but president of the United States. The Reagan Library has many files filled with letters from conservatives blasting Reagan for being too accommodating. Reagan's Cabinet, filled as it was with moderates like Alexander Haig and Malcolm Baldridge, let alone Rockefeller Republicans like Richard Schweiker, infuriated conservatives.
One of the few ideologues Reagan appointed to a high position, his Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman, would write a kiss-and-tell book,"The Triumph of Politics," complaining that the so-called Reagan Revolution was headed by an amiable former actor more interested in being popular than storming the big government Bastille. Ultimately, the Reagan Revolution slowed the rate of growth of government - but it preserved the New Deal status quo. Stockman's glum conclusion was that American government was more"Madisonian," fragmented, temperate, incrementalist, than he had hoped.
This moderation provides essential ballast in a democratic system. America remains a center-right nation - and a country of pragmatists wary of revolution. Even the American Revolution itself was a relatively mild, reasonable affair - compared to the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutionary bloodbaths. In his victory speech, Barack Obama acknowledged the tens of millions who did not vote for him, whose support he will need to succeed. George W. Bush presidency should be remembered as a cautionary tale warning against the Karl Rove strategy of mobilizing the base and neglecting the center.
When President Bush struck early, thinking big and broadly, one Democratic senator proposed minor changes to Bush's controversial tax cuts. The senator promised that with those compromises,"I guarantee you'll get seventy votes out of the Senate." Rove replied,"We don't want seventy votes. We want fifty-one." This polarizing take-no-prisoners attitude alienated many and derailed Bush's presidency. The writer who recounted that anecdote was Barack Obama himself, in"The Audacity of Hope." Obama then wrote:"Genuine bipartisanship … assumes an honest process of give-and-take, and that the quality of the compromise is measured by how well it serves some agreed-upon goal, whether better schools or lower deficit." This is a great description of what muscular moderation is all about - and what Barack Obama needs to remember as he reads about FDR's presidency - and plans to lead from the center in an Obama administration.
It has been quite the ride. Political scientists who doubt the impact campaigns can have on votes will need to take this roller-coaster of a campaign into account. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain coasted to their respective party’s nomination and the lead in the general campaign switched at least three times. Judging by most polls, Obama led for much of the summer, McCain surged just before and during the Republican National Convention. Then Obama pulled into the lead thanks to the financial meltdown and Obama’s steadier debate performances.
Tomorrow, American voters will find themselves shaped by the 1960s’ revolution as they judge – but also partially try to replicate -- the 1980s revolution. Both nominees represent the tremendous progress the country has made since the 1960s. As one of America’s most famous Vietnam veterans, John McCain represents the seachange in attitudes towards Vietnam vets, partially due to his own efforts. Although the claim that soldiers returning from Vietnam were spat at has never been proven, in the 1970s, many felt neglected and rejected by the country they had served. McCain’s iconic role in American culture as a symbol of patriotism, selflessness, and sacrifice illustrates that many of the national wounds from that war have healed.
Obama, who has spent much of the campaign remarking about how young he was during the 1960s, is in so many ways a child of that decade. The civil rights movement made his candidacy possible. Standing on the shoulders of the movement’s giants, Obama has gone farther and faster than any of them dared to hope. Martin Luther King, Jr’s audacity was in dreaming his children would be treated as the equal of whites, not that they would be in a position to lead.
As the sixties casts its shadow on this choice, the decade of the eighties looms large as well. When John McCain is not paying homage to Theodore Roosevelt, McCain speaks of Ronald Reagan. Both Roosevelt and Reagan offer the kind of muscular, nationalist, leadership McCain admires. Obama admires that style of leadership too, even if he dislikes Reagan’s policies. In a January interview in Nevada, Obama said Reagan had “changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” In defending these remarks against the inevitable Democratic – and Clintonesque – onslaught – Obama explained that he was not embracing Reagan’s positions, just admiring Reagan as a “transformative leader.” Again and again, at his most powerful campaigning moments, Obama has demonstrated a similar potential.
Of course, the financial meltdown put the legacy of the 1980s into contention more directly. In the summer, the Soviet invasion of Georgia and the continuing worries about Iran and Iraq made 2008 look like it was going to be a foreign policy-oriented election. That assumption helps explain Obama’s selection of Joe Biden as a running mate. This choice – like so many other assumptions – seemed unnecessary once the stock market started plummeting.
Alas, despite the leadership opportunity the financial crisis provided for the candidates, neither rose to the occasion. Both remained cautious, simplistic demagogic. Of course, that was par for the campaigning course. But the campaign hoopla is almost over. Tomorrow, the president-elect has to start planning how to help the country – a task that will make the challenges of even this campaign seem downright trivial.
When critics mourn American politics’ increasing nastiness, the usual suspects include the media’s headline-driven hysteria and polarizing black-and-white approach to news, talk radio’s demagoguery, and the blogosphere’s viciousness. Others note the scramble for relatively few swing voters in a divided society and this election’s high stakes. Yet culture counts too, especially popular culture. Today’s no-holds-barred, decadent culture encourages a sensationalist and indulgent politics.
While conservatives love to blame the amoral and liberal media, America’s hedonism is a joint accomplishment, rooted in the American dream, intensified since Ronald Reagan’s 1980s. This anomaly is one of conservatism’s great blind spots. The prosperity Reagan helped unleash triggered a wave of materialism; the national revival Reagan celebrated spread an epidemic of individualism and libertinism which has weakened the nation’s social and moral fabric. Liberals and conservatives each see themselves as more virtuous than their opponents. Yet neither has a monopoly on morality; personal virtue does not correlate with political views. As Sarah Palin’s family makes clear, rates of pre-marital sex, divorce, or even trashy movie-watching do not correspond to the overused red state versus blue state paradigm.
Amid the loud, lurid carnival that constitutes so much American popular culture, with so many distracted by shopping 24/7, politics must compete with modern America’s burlesque for attention. In a world of caricatures, with too many consumed by the desire for goods rather than for “the good,” politicians feel pressed to lead by slinging simplistic slogans rather than confronting complex realities. As the stock markets have tumbled, both nominees have offered facile postures not thoughtful solutions.
While cultural forces feel overwhelming they are not immutable. Unfortunately, most entertainers, journalist, and politicians go with the partisan flow rather than standing against this polarizing tide. But consider Jon Stewart’s impact in 2004 when he confronted Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala on CNN’s “Crossfire.” “Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America,” Stewart demanded, calling Carlson and Begala partisan hacks reducing every political conversation to combat. CNN soon cancelled the show. Alas, we have to reach back four years to find someone standing up so effectively against the toxic partisanship. If more influentials followed Stewart’s example, politics would improve.
A politics that minimizes clashes, seeking the public good, requires a vigorous, romantic faith in America’s democratic experiment. Americans need to restore some of that old time civic religion, that confidence in America’s virtue and in this collective enterprise known as the United States. Structurally, the country also needs some pressures promoting centrism to counterbalance the media and partisan pressures to polarize. Creative leaders and organized citizens groups must tap into that spirit of American nationalism at its best, renewing a sense of collective mission as Americans celebrate their individual freedoms and prerogatives.
George Washington himself taught that the spirit of enlightened moderation, a culture of reasonableness, does not only depend on the Commander in Chief. Citizens in all democracies – including Canada where only 59.1 percent chose to vote this month – must take more responsibility for what we collectively are doing to our politics, our culture, our country, ourselves. The escapist combination of partisanship, cynicism, and frivolity which defines too much contemporary Western culture invites flights from responsibility; the privileges of citizenship, the needs of our time, invite – and demand -- the opposite. We all must begin finding our inner moderate. We must reward muscular moderates who lead from the center. We must repudiate those who through vitriol, demagoguery or mockery divide, polarize, or distract from important issues at hand to attract our entertainment dollars or score some cheap political points.
Citizens in a democracy get the leadership they deserve, for better or worse. If we, collectively, revitalize the center, our presidents and prime-ministers will become center-seekers; if we demand the best of our leaders, we just might get the best leaders. As the new president helps the nation heal, let us hope that he brings out his inner moderate, the promise from the spring of a new politics that defies the usual cultural and political laws of gravity in America.