Jewish World Review Nov. 11, 2004 / 27 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765
For a saner public discourse
The new republican dominance of the institutions of government may well be the greatest single triumph for the GOP since William McKinley sat on his porch in Canton, Ohio, throughout the campaign of 1896 then won the largest popular vote since 1872. Apart from the Republican split in 1912 (which put Woodrow Wilson in the White House), there was no break in the Republican ascendancy until the Great Depression, when FDR and the Democrats had their turn, ruling the roost for 20 years.
There can be no question this time of the legitimacy of President Bush, but it is still true, as it was four years ago, that he rules a deeply divided nation. The fundamental difference is over America's values, its foreign policy, and its future direction. Senator Kerry's graceful pledge to "do my part to try to bridge the partisan divide" is a good start, and President Bush would do well to take him up on it, for our nation works best when government operates on the basis of bipartisan compromise even when it doesn't have to, not when the party in power feels free to follow the dictates of its base.
Can the president do that? Promisingly, in his first post- election statement, he suggested he would "reach out to the whole nation." But in his press conference the next day, he said sternly that he had earned his political capital during the bruising campaign and that he intended to spend it. The temptation for the president, given his majority and his party's control of Congress, would be to do everything within his power to realize the goals he stated during the campaign. But he should be mindful that more than 50 million Americans don't trust his leadership and that for the train wreck of critical problems facing the nation he will require the broadest political support. Here are just some of the issues.
1. National security. America has a unique challenge that will not go away in four years or maybe even 40. This is the generational struggle against the menace of terrorism. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said, "Never before has it been necessary to conduct a war with neither front lines nor geographic definition and, at the same time, to rebuild fundamental principles of world order . . . . The basic adversary is the radical fundamentalist, militant fringe of Islam, which aims to overthrow both moderate Islamic society and all others it perceives as standing in the way of restoring an Islamic caliphate. . . . The trick here will be defeating the radicals militarily without undermining the forces for moderation." Even the vast resources of the mightiest nation on Earth will be hard put to meet this challenge. President Bush, who began as a unilateralist, will require an international collaboration as deep and intense as we had in the Cold War on intelligence, trade, and relations with Muslim populations. It may be that a threat arises that is so alarming we will have to invoke once again the Bush doctrine of pre-emption, "getting them before they get us," but that would require the broadest public support in the United States and elsewhere. So, too, with the more specific menace of nuclear proliferation with theocratic Iran and dictatorial North Korea. The president has committed himself to a multilateral effort against both. It cannot begin too soon.
2. Red ink. How are we to pay for the baby boomers' retirement benefits as they leave the workforce and come to rely on Social Security and Medicare? If young people are to be afforded private accounts so that Social Security is no longer pay-as-you-go, how will the transition costs as much as $2 trillion over 10 years be covered? The president has never answered this question. Reality may force him either to cut benefits or increase taxes, for otherwise we will surely head for a financial meltdown.
Put simply, the U.S. economy is awash in red ink. It would be irresponsible in the extreme to rely on the inflow of capital from abroad, on the order of some $2 billion a day, to pay for the twin deficits of trade with the world and budget shortfalls at home; both the current-account trade deficit and the domestic fiscal deficit have widened dramatically during President Bush's first term.
We must begin living within our means. We have avoided the consequences of overspending because other countries kept lending us money at reasonable rates to buy their goods. But now many of them, especially Asians, have huge stashes of dollars that are bound to depreciate before their eyes, leaving America in a fundamentally untenable place. The only question is whether we make the necessary adjustments or wait for the financial markets to force solutions upon us.
3. Soaring health costs. The president attacked John Kerry's proposed health plan as a form of socialism, but what will he put in its place? Both supporters and critics will look to him with some urgency because the slow growth of 401(k) plans isn't granting most Americans the ability to provide for their retirement and medical care. Making matters worse, the medical and retirement liabilities of some of our largest companies might well undermine their financial stability, shifting those burdens to taxpayers.
4. Immigration. There has been an utter failure to deal with the tidal wave of foreigners to America's shores and borders. Clearly, America benefits enormously from the brainpower and muscle of elective immigration. But our borders are porous, our policies are confused, and virtually uncontrolled immigration year after year is placing a strain on our social resources, creating huge security risks, and, ultimately, challenging the very identity of our nation.
George W. Bush's second term will be dominated by these issues. If they are allowed to reach crisis levels, even more unpalatable solutions will be forced upon us, and the fabric of the nation will be stretched and strained.
Can we move forward from the rancor of an election marked by bitterness and a failure to disagree agreeably? How can we change the environment of disdain, distrust, and hatred created by both sides? Our poisoned political atmosphere was best captured this election season by a cartoon in which an American citizen gazes at Mount Rushmore, where Washington and Jefferson look in one direction and Roosevelt and Lincoln look in another. The caption says: "I can't remember when I've ever seen this country so polarized."
The news media, sadly, have contributed to the intensity of our division. Cable networks, by nature, are different from the broadcast networks, which once provided the electronic town meeting format for the national conversation of an election year. Political partisans sought out perceived favorable cable networks to push their agendas in the hope that they could shape the political process and make sure their own side won. They were beating up on anybody going in the wrong direction. Witness the attacks on Dan Rather and on Sinclair Broadcasting, on Fox News and on the New York Times
It isn't so much that the media are liberal or conservative. It is that they are adversarial by nature and seek conflict and controversy as the best way to attract public attention and, thus, higher ratings. The instinct of the national press corps is to debunk and deride any authority, to make anyone in power automatically suspect, thus undermining the ability of any leadership to emerge and unite the country. This adversarial media culture blocks the formulation of consensus or coherence on any major political purpose around which Americans can rally except perhaps war. When belligerence and hostility become the favorite form of political entertainment, no good can come of it, you can be sure. And when the media come to believe that their audience wants to see someone get mad because it makes "good television," bad news drives out good. You can count on that, too. The watchdogs today have become attack dogs, rushing to judgment of people, trends, and events, pushed by a relentless 24/7 news cycle in which breaking stories are covered instantaneously, often without even a pretext of adequate reporting.
The Crossfire phenomenon, where feuding TV spinners pose as real debaters, is a disservice to the public. Too much of what happens under the banner of journalism is, in fact, political propaganda two teams armed with their own spin doctors, think tanks, special interest groups, media outlets, and TV personalities taunting each other and attacking each other, making the American system of shared power and compromise seemingly impossible. Is it any wonder then that the media are seen in such a negative light by so many Americans? The news media can paralyze the country by their failure to cover progress anywhere near as well as they cover scandal and decay. It is hard for heroes to emerge and for leadership to break through when we have a talk-show nation in which public discourse is more and more reduced to outrageous sound bites, oversimplification, harangue, and hype all to win a few precious moments of national attention. Regrettably, ours has become a nation where
truth is too often judged not by fact or evidence but by frantic histrionics and cheap rhetoric.
There is pith in the phrases used to describe the press today "attack journalism," "feeding frenzy," "gotcha journalism," "merchants of sleaze." Most Americans feel, quite rightly, that many in the news media remain indifferent to what really matters, reporting less on the country's real problems and more on conflict and personality issues, practicing what someone called "curled lip" journalism.
But it takes two to tango. The administration of President Bush must be much more open in its second term than it has been in its first. The secrecy of the first Bush term has not served either the president or the public well. Secrecy breeds the twin evils of error and distrust. It will be even more imperative to be open and candid given the GOP's control of the levers of the legislative and executive branches, with the almost-certain prospect of the Supreme Court moving still further to the right.
William McKinley was a unifier. Following his election (and a war with Spain), he distanced himself from the hardliners in his party, choosing not to see his victory as a mandate for extremism. Like Dwight Eisenhower, McKinley was a master of common-sense consensus politics. President Bush would do well to emulate both of those predecessors in his priorities and his selection of a new cabinet. And the Republican Congress should be ready to follow that example. After all, it owes him a lot.
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© 2004, Mortimer Zuckerman