Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University. His latest book is The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.
Gil Troy, National Post · May 24, 2011
Believe it or not, just as we finished with Canada's mercifully brief -but far too frequent -national election campaign, the first American presidential debate for 2012 took place. Fox News and the South Carolina Republican Party hosted a candidates' forum on May 5 in Greeneville, S.C., a mere 18 months before Election Day. Former governor Tim Pawlenty was the only A-lister present; other participants included Rep. Ron Paul, tycoon Herman Cain, former senator Rick Santorum and former governor Gary Johnson. The Ronald Reagan Library postponed its debate, originally scheduled for May 2, until September, when presumably more candidates will have announced. Of course, a Reagan debate on May 2 would have been better poetically, both because of its overlap with the Canadian contest, and because, more than 30 years after his inauguration, Ronald Reagan -or at least his iconic reputation -remains the standard by which Republicans judge their candidates. On the Democratic side, it is safe to assume that some future historians will begin their account of the 2012 campaign with the death of Osama bin Laden. Whether it proves a boost to Obama's campaign or not, it is a significant historic move that arrived just as the Republican party is beginning to prepare for the coming election.
We can, of course, expect that this campaign, like all the others, will feature high-minded calls to focus on substance -even as candidates, journalists and, let's face it, voters, succumb to base appeals and debates. Such spectacles are a necessary part of democratic politics. But we should hope that the inevitable rhetorical fireworks don't eclipse the important debates that should dominate the coming campaign. Americans should be debating at least three fundamental questions: What kind of government do they want, what kind of military do they need and what kind of leadership have they been getting?
Although Obama and the leaders of the Tea Party do not agree on much, they have been addressing this first basic question for months. In a recent speech on deficit reduction at George Washington University, Obama spoke of two threads "running throughout our history" -one of rugged individualism, with a belief in free markets, and "a belief that we are all connected ... that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation." It is too facile to caricature the Republicans as the individualists and the Democrats as the communitarians, but Republicans are individualists -who believe in a strong national defence. Democrats like Obama are communitarians -who understand that a strong economy must be free. How precisely to weave the two threads together is one of the central challenges of modern governance, and of the upcoming election.
Regarding the military, there are practical, tactical questions along with abstract ideological dilemmas. Especially in an age of cutbacks, the military must justify the huge chunk of the budget it devours. And America's partial involvement in the attempt to dislodge Muammar Gaddafi is a suitable launching pad for wider-ranging discussions about when the United States should resort to military force, what kind of force the U.S. should engage in, and whether American foreign policy should be realist or idealistic. All these questions again feed into the broader issue of just what kind of country America will be.
Finally, this election will be a referendum on Obama. It is hard making a re-election campaign about anything else but the incumbent. And especially considering the tremendously high hopes Obama's "Yes We Can" campaign stirred in 2008, the overwhelming challenges Obama has faced since winning and the continuing questions about just what are his core ideals, the election is likely to pivot around him and his job performance.
Amid all the predictions and speculation about the final result, candidates, commentators and voters have an opportunity to debate the serious issues facing the United States today. Whether any and all tackle these three key questions will be the true measure of the upcoming campaign's success.
Plus -- Extra Thought for the Day -- Govenor Mitch Daniel's reluctance to run for President - actually his family's reluctance -- reminds me of the late David Broder's famous "looney test" -- which raises a modern paradox. He suggested that the campaign had become so insane that anyone crazy enough to run was by definition too looney for us to trust in office -- what to do when good people refuse to run for rational reasons? My answer always was that the campaign gives a taste of the presidency. If you -- and your family - are not willing to have your insides splayed out in public, the presidency is not for you and it is better to realize that sooner rather than later....