“It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another; but above all, try something.”
–Franklin D. Roosevelt
In theory, a two party system could provide a sturdy national rudder to guide the ship of state along an optimal path to the future. Imagine a democratic China where a Red Party promotes traditional values and industrial growth while a Green party promotes modernism and environmental protection. The Greens could provide support for a wide range of new ideas while the Reds oppose change and strike down the worst of new government institutions. The end result would be constant improvement without runaway excess.
As wonderful as that sounds, it is merely theory. Here in the United States, our politics are dominated by one party that emphasizes new ideas and another that favors the status quo. In theory, while Democrats bring modern values and institutional changes to the table, Republicans obstruct all but the best of those new ideas. In practice, this simply is not the case.
Many historical Democrats have brought helpful new ideas into the public arena. Yet the Clinton administration found itself browbeaten by Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution. After backing down in the fight for universal health care, Bill Clinton signed off on a range of institutional changes that were decidedly conservative. While catering little to traditional values, his bold spending cuts and restraint with new initiatives were a wild departure from the “tax and spend liberal” brand Democrats’ critics so often apply to them.
Yet the historical record of Republicans is even less consistent with the idea of substantive conservatism. Again and again a rhetorical emphasis on spending restraint gives way to bold new levels of federal spending. Some Republicans may have stood in firm opposition to the rise of modern values, but their economic practices have ranged from incoherent to downright hypocritical. As unpleasant as “tax and spend” may sound, surely it is better over the long term than “borrow and spend.”
Even today that side of the aisle offers us nothing new. Senator John McCain continues to push for lower taxes on business, lower taxes on high personal incomes, increased defense spending, and a more belligerent posture on the world stage. Even in those moments when he eschews fearmongering and presents himself as an agent of change, almost all the substance of his policy proposals is a call to stay the course.
Yet his opponent actually does rise up to fulfill the role of a liberal reformer. Senator Barack Obama sometimes draws on ideas crafted in previous decades, but even his oldest proposals have yet to be given due consideration in national political dialogue. Only a strong sense of unrest coupled with a spectacular failure of trickle down economics sets the stage for mainstream consideration of sweeping change. The underlying realities are largely as they were years ago, but the signs indicating a need for change have become much harder to ignore.
It is in this context that some Republicans have taken to decrying a lack of jingoism in Senator Obama’s rhetoric. The Rovian word count game (as in, “he spoke for an entire hour and did not use the word ‘victory once'”) is a sleazy and often misleading trick. Yet it is true that the Democratic nominee is reluctant to use simplistic language in addressing complex nuanced subjects. Rather than make unsubstantiated claims about future prosperity, victory, etc. he favors more precise and technical discussion.
Yet this should not be cast as a liability. Amidst frequent Republican talk of prosperity, today’s announcement of a plan to increase the income tax deduction for dependents is the first proposal by Senator McCain to offer some benefit to working class families that was not inferred as an inevitable byproduct of making the rich even richer. Though this does represent substantive change, it is both a departure from the rest of the Republican campaign and an oddly belated effort to acknowledge that America’s real economic distress must be addressed through outreach to the families and individuals in the most difficult of circumstances.
The same can be said for foreign affairs. Republicans often speak in sure tones of victory in Iraq. Some have tried to link this to declining levels of violence over there, as if partially cleaning up a mess of our own creation constitutes some sort of victory. Others focus on the idea of a stable democratic regime able to provide for its own security. Perhaps that would be a real victory, but it has not been advanced by recent military initiatives, nor is there any Republican proposal that speaks to the heart of political challenges facing democracy in Iraq.
In spite of the blood spilled, in spite of the treasure consumed, in spite of the goodwill lost; the McCain-Palin campaign pushes for continuity in U.S.-Iraq policy. No matter how many times the candidates employ the word “victory,” neither does much to define it, let alone offer up a concrete plan for its achievement. Rather than work on rallying the nation behind some sort of real solution to the serious problem, the Republican party has chosen to demonize their opponents for nothing worse than the failure to embrace hollow rhetoric.
Yet the absurdity does not end there. Senator McCain has frequently told the nation that he knows how to capture Osama bin Laden. What is he holding out for? Does he fear such an accomplishment would not catapult him into the White House? Is it an idea the present administration has refused to implement? Is it an idea he would withhold from a future administration if Barack Obama should happen to serve as its Commander-in-Chief?
Senator Obama is not fast and loose with terms like “victory” only because to do so without coherent and concrete plans to accomplish victories is dishonest. When we are honest, a discussion of Iraq must recognize tremendous challenges that no amount of military power can resolve. Our armed forces are second to none, but that acknowledgement does not imbue them with supreme abilities to address diplomatic, political, or economic problems. Perhaps the federal approach long advocated by Senator Joe Biden has drawbacks as well as advantages, but at least it speaks realistically to the nature of the situation in Iraq.
Should the next President of the United States be John McCain, I believe everyone would expect much talk of “victory.” Yet does anyone expect him to swiftly neutralize Osama bin Laden? Does anyone expect him to smoothly resolve the internal conflicts in Iraq? Does anyone believe that his economic proposals would remedy fundamental economic problems the man himself was among the last to recognize?
If one does not look beyond the two party system for answers, then the choice is clear. One alternative leads to a future where there is much talk of victory, while meaningful actions only perpetuate economic and foreign policies framed by the present administration. The other path leads to a future of much more realistic discourse, with meaningful actions that strike a new economic balance and adopt a new tone on the world stage. If ever our nation is to achieve real victories over the great challenges of our times, it seems to me that the political choice we must make is clear.