Don't Worry, Be Happy
Description: The Times/CBS News Poll reported yesterday revealed that Americans are more pessimistic about the country's direction than at almost any time in the past 23 years. George Bush's approval numbers are so low that he's now only five points more popular
Date: 10 May 2006
Author: David Brooks
Source: New York Times
The Times/CBS News Poll reported yesterday revealed that Americans are more pessimistic about the country's direction than at almost any time in the past 23 years. George Bush's approval numbers are so low that he's now only five points more popular than John Kerry and three points more popular than Al Gore.
But from where I sit as president of the Prozac Would Be Redundant Society, all the negativity is a few months out of date.
First, look at some fundamentals. The International Monetary Fund predicts that the world economy will grow at 4.9 percent, which would be the second-fastest annual rate in three decades. Free institutions spread more quickly last year than in any year since 1972, when Freedom House began measuring these things. According to the Human Security Report, the number of wars with at least 1,000 deaths in battle has dropped by 80 percent since 1992. Air pollution levels are plummeting; over the last three years we've had the lowest level of ozone smog violations on record.
The reason people are down is not because their own lives are awful ? it's because they're suffering a crisis of authority. They no longer have confidence in the institutions that are supposed to maintain order in their lives, whether the topic's terrorism, gas prices or federal spending.
But even here, the latest news is good. Look around at all the green shoots of political renewal.
Not long ago, the temper-tantrum left seemed to be on the verge of capturing the Democratic Party, but now the Clintonite centrists are reasserting their intellectual, financial and political supremacy.
Last month, Hillary Clinton gave a proto-campaign speech in Chicago, laying out an economic agenda that Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute called remarkably centrist. Clinton called for a return to "pay as you go" budget rules. Congress couldn't raise spending or cut taxes unless it filled the hole in the budget right away, the only effective way to restore fiscal balance.
Robert Rubin and others have begun the Hamilton Project, which is churning out policy ideas that defy easy categorization and serve as a blueprint for an innovative, moderate administration. The Democratic agenda will be fleshed out by the free-trade progressive Gene Sperling, and by Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Reed, whose coming book will push ideas on how to increase savings and such.
On the Republican side, meanwhile, most of the news in the next 18 months will be made by John McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani. This is a party in the midst of fundamental change. Some of the professional conservative groups that claim they have veto power over who runs the party are about to be exposed.
The intra-Republican debate is less well developed than the Democratic debate because until a few months ago, conservatives passively awaited leadership from the White House. But that has changed, too, and the signs of rethinking are everywhere.
Yesterday in the House, Mark Kirk and other Republicans unveiled a "suburban agenda" to help suburban families, not K Street lobbyists. On the Cato Institute's Web site, there is a roiling debate about fundamentals led by David Frum and Bruce Bartlett. These free marketeers acknowledge that in an aging society it's going to be hard to cut the size of government, so they ask, What do we do now? In The Weekly Standard, Irwin Stelzer wonders if it may be time to cut the payroll tax and raise the top rates, to shift the burden away from those who bear the brunt of trade and immigration.
In short, the smartest people in both parties have shifted attention from the past to the future, and a sense of flexibility and promise is in the air.
There's been an even bigger shift in attitudes about how politics should be done. The Stalinist on-message style is passé. The rising young politicians like Barack Obama and Lindsey Graham never talk in that predictable party-hack way. Mark Warner and Romney are building their campaigns around their ability to find common ground with political opponents.
The pseudopopulist renegades who rail against the establishment are being eclipsed by the canny establishmentarians. They're the ones who know how to use the levers of government to get things done.
Remember, my downcast fellow citizens, nothing stays the same. Spring brings rebirth and the dewy green faeries of sanity are flittering down the think tank corridors and o'er the politicians' up-turned brows.