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Monday, May 19, 2008

Shadowy Perspectives in the Time of Politics

The Relative Importance of Past Elections

There is a sense now that this could be the most important presidential election ever for our country. You hear it from this side of the aisle all the time. It is an important time for change, so vote because this election will be the one that changes our path. This election will determine if we can turn a downward socio-economic spiral into a surge upward. This election will get us away from policies based on war and toward policies based on diplomacy. This election is about the future.

But truth hides in shadowy perspectives on the past. I mean, if we go ahead, say, eight years, would we look back on this election with the same kind of intense gravitas which we ascribe to it now? More? Less? Certainly I can point to three presidential elections in my lifetime that seem very important now, though they did not necessarily occur that way at the time.

1968, in fact, was one that was just as important then as it is now. The country was deeply divided over age, over race, over rights and over another unwinnable war. There is no doubt that the intensity of that election and its subsequent result changed the way an entire generation approached politics and public service.

I think that one election to which we were not tuned in all the way was, in hindsight, 1980, Reagan/Carter. Reagan was elected only because he represented a clear difference from our pal Jimmy, who had a very tough administration. Even with a Democratic majority, he kept hitting roadblocks. That and the events in Tehran were Carter's undoing. Reagan promised to bring us out of what Carter called our "national malaise."

I don't think anyone foresaw how wildly popular Reagan would become, that he could take the Marines on a little tap dance through Grenada and call it a war, or that he could get away with fighting the Communist backed Sandinista government in Nicaragua by sending weapons to the Contras in exchange for cocaine sold to Americans by the CIA, or that he would be able to send arms to Iran via Israel to get hostages back, or that he could sell arms directly to the Iranians and use some of the money to fund the Contras in Nicaragua.

So 1980 saw the election of someone who we all knew would be difficult for progressive values, but we had no idea he would stay so busy sticking our collective noses where they didn't belong.

The last, most important election was 2000. As my wife says, we knew we didn't like him but we didn't expect that W was actually dangerous. Who really knows what would have happened had the will of the people prevailed? Would a Gore administration have paid closer attention to the warnings before 9/11? We almost certainly would not have invaded and occupied Iraq:

"It is impossible to succeed against terrorism unless we have secured the continuing, sustained cooperation of many nations. And here's one of my central points; our ability to secure that kind of multilateral cooperation in the war against terrorism can be severely damaged in the way we go about undertaking unilateral action against Iraq."-Al Gore, Commonwealth Club, Sept.23, 2002

We probably would not have raided Social Security. There would most likely be no federal deficit. Really, in this case, hindsight reared its head quickly, followed four years later by intense regret.

Now we find ourselves in another "most important election." Is it? Only time will tell.

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