In a recent column David Brooks reports being struck that Republican audiences this year want a restoration. America once had strong values…but we have gone astray. We’ve got to go back and rediscover what we had. He went on, I agree with the sentiment, but it makes for an incredibly backward-looking campaign. I sometimes wonder if the Republican Party has become the receding roar of white America as it pines for a way of life that will never return.
The idea of restoration is exactly what his audiences probably consider when Mitt Romney speaks of taking America back. And that back is not to either of the Bushes (who’ve become stump non-persons) but to an idealized Ronald Reagan. For years Republicans were green with envy that Democrats had FDR’s flag to wave while they had to reach far back to being the Party of Lincoln. It’s not to discount Lincoln — most of us would gladly and do claim him — but rather that the Great Emancipator seems so, well, Democratic. Reagan on the other hand is larger than life, seen as a legitimate counterbalance to Roosevelt. His were the mythical golden years, when the country was set on a course of prosperity and power. Reagan stands for lower taxes and a strong economy, for winning the Cold War and emerging as the World’s only superpower. Both the prosperity and the superpower notions are more than just appealing. They represent an ego-enhancing reassurance about our invincibility, our exceptionalism.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, it’s not only Republicans who look back wistfully to the good old days. We long for a restoration of the time when being middle class meant something, when unions were fighting successfully for workers and when our kids could go to college without obliterating our savings or emerging as debtors. We all like to think that politics was so much kinder when Ronnie and Tip could do business together or when Mr. Sam (Rayburn) invited Democrats and Republicans alike (well, almost alike) to join him for those famous late afternoon cocktail hours. Ah, the good old days.
Of course they weren’t all that great and in some respects not all that different from today. Just take one small example. In 1952 the columnist Stewart Alsop branded Adlai Stevenson an egghead. It quickly became an epithet. Anything intellectual was considered bad and, by implication, out of the mainstream — not like Ike and certainly not like us. Today Barak Obama is branded professorial (read egghead) — not like real Americans, not like us. How we view intellectuals in this country, including that universities are increasingly looked to as vocational schools rather than places of learning, is a matter for another time.
Brooks is concerned about a backward-looking campaign. He thinks we should be thinking and talking about the future. I couldn’t agree more. I also concur with his assessment of today’s Republicans as the receding roar of white America and that the life and place for which they (and many of us) yearn will never return. But insofar as the upcoming election is concerned, I think Romney and his supporters are being more than unrealistic. Talking about taking (going) back is a serious strategic blunder. No politician, even with good sloganeering, is in full control of the message, how it’s heard rather than how it is meant. So Romney’s invitation to look or go back actually runs contrary to (and might cancel out) his storyline about Obama’s poor performance in the present. It reminds us that Reagan actually sent us on a road to a highly leveraged faux prosperity whose endpoint was the stunning, and in retrospect fully predictable, collapse of 2008. Moreover it lays bare how ephemeral being the last standing superpower is a modern world where the reality of globalization leads directly to a more level playing field. By the way, whether we aggressively promoted it or not, in the information age globalization would have happened on its own, probably just as fast.
You can’t call for a return without prompting the question, return to what? And that’s exactly where Democrats and the President should want voters to look. It may well be that Republicans have tried to erase the presidential firm of Bush & Bush from our minds, but Americans have shown themselves to have only short-term memories. It’s been almost a quarter century since Reagan left office, which means that a large swath of the population wasn’t born or old enough to worship at his alter. In contrast George W. Bush was in office just three years ago and, efforts to erase him from history are laughable. He remains top-of-mind. What his presidency wrought at home and abroad — how it impacted on our individual lives — doesn't make for a pretty picture. Obama will be happy to focus on that past, to ask Americans if they want to return to it. When Republicans urge us to go back, he’ll remind us again that it was their man Bush who bequeathed him and us a colossal mess to clean up. As with hurricanes, tornedos and floods the garbage left behind by a financial meltdown is so massive that it isn’t easily or quickly collected. Just ask the residents of New Orleans. The cleanup and rebuilding, as they know so well, takes substantially more time than tearing down. Restoring the past may speak to some who don’t like where we are today or who we have become as a nation, but focusing on the rearview mirror rather than on the road ahead is always hazardous, often fatal.
Brooks may despair of what has become of the party and ideology he largely supports, but he can’t undo the bed they have chosen to make for themselves. In narrowing their constituency to mostly people like us — few Blacks, Latinos, Gays or any of the others they demonize — it’s unsurprising that Republicans share a sense (and reality) of displacement. They may find it unnerving, may lash out with an angry Tea Party, but they can’t turn the clock back. Brooks, himself one of those eggheads they disdain, tells the truth. Yesterday is really gone. You can ask Eastman Kodak about that one. Perhaps neither the rank and file nor their leaders get (or admit to getting) it, but those they paint as the other are fast becoming us. And it’s the very multidimensional us that has always been America at its best, a nation of others who have kept our creative juices going, given us a unique identity. Perhaps in this election cycle we’re not yet ready to talk directly and honestly about the real America of 2012, but the time when any one of us can afford to sit with blinders on is running out.
This election is bound to be about the economy, and perhaps we’ll see a discussion about the role of government — more or less — in our lives. That kind of conversation is long overdue, but don’t count on it happening. Part of what will likely drive us as voters this fall is whether or not we want to go back. What we decide will depend in large measure on how we perceive the good old days and whether we think this nation can manage and, more importantly thrive, in a very different time. My advice to you is simple. If you’re yearning for the past — the old days — get over it!