Getting politics out of the pit

Getting politics out of the pit
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Politics since 1972 has seemed to harken back to the Edgar Allen Poe story, “The Pit and the Pendulum.” As with the narrator of the story, in the pit and tied to a table, Americans have been treated to watching politics as a razor-sharp pendulum that swings back and forth between two extremes, slowing getting closer and closer to slicing them and the country into pieces. Set in the period of the Inquisition, Poe’s tale featured intolerance of opposing viewpoints, corruption of institutions, secret courts and special prosecutors. Hmm.

When people say that Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpProsecutors investigating Trump inaugural fund, pro-Trump super PAC for possible illegal foreign donations: NY Times George Conway: Why take Trump's word over prosecutors' if he 'lies about virtually everything' Federal judge says lawsuit over Trump travel ban waivers will proceed MORE is the legacy of Barack Obama, they have a point. The high-handed use of presidential mandates, the one-sided passage of expensive health care legislation, a wave of undocumented immigrants, growth through free money from the Fed, and accommodating globalization policies featuring a prostrate president apologizing to the world for American history were destined to lead to an ear-splitting, returning swoosh of the pendulum toward nationalism, American exceptionalism, deregulation, tax reduction, border control and jingoism virtually shredding the presidential “inevitability” of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSanders, Warren meet ahead of potential 2020 bids Hillicon Valley — Presented by AT&T — New momentum for privacy legislation | YouTube purges spam videos | Apple plans B Austin campus | Iranian hackers targeted Treasury officials | FEC to let lawmakers use campaign funds for cyber Comey’s remarks about Trump dossier are not credible, says former FBI official MORE.

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But there is nothing new here. For the past 45 to 50 years, American politics has operated at the extremes. Post-Watergate, Gerald Ford attempted to gain control of a failing U.S. economy through the non-policies of a record number of presidential vetoes and a plea to “whip inflation now” through voluntary citizen restraint. He also attempted a Henry Kissinger-inspired “detente” with the Soviets to slow their expansion. Jimmy Carter served as a placeholder/caretaker president with a similar defeatist foreign policy, combined with obeisance to OPEC and another plea to Americans to save energy voluntarily.

All of that was swept aside by Ronald Reagan, who dismissed the very idea of detente and aimed to crush the Soviet Union, which he did, and who also launched a major restructuring of American capital markets through tax and budget reform policies that were mirrored by Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. All a dramatic and sudden swoosh of the global political pendulum to the opposite pole from their immediate predecessors.

George H.W. Bush served as another placeholder, except for his incomplete war on Iraq and his budget director’s unfortunate “walks like a duck” tax rhetoric. Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonA missed opportunity for Democrats in the border wall showdown Dem pollster blames Gingrich for current partisan strife The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump says he 'never directed' Cohen to break the law | GOP reels from Trump shutdown threat | Alleged spy Butina pleads guilty to conspiracy charge MORE, inheriting the Reagan capital markets and hitting the jackpot with the dot.com economic boom, squandered major opportunities and achieved nothing in domestic and foreign policy, save for a valiant effort for Middle East peace at Wye Plantation, which only served to expose Yasser Arafat as a fraud.

Under Clinton, opportunity for successful transition in Russia collapsed, Vladimir Putin emerged, China grew, North Korea cheated, Iran and al Qaeda strengthened … and the rest is history.

George W. Bush had to face 9/11. He crushed Iraq without a follow-up plan, let the budget get out of control, and failed to rein in the mortgage-backed-securities house of cards built by the greed of Fannie Mae and leading investment banks.

And then came Obama, who might seriously have moved the pendulum, but didn’t. 

In a sense, Trump actually is the legacy of both Bushes, Clinton and Obama, all of whom allowed foreign policy to drift without any real rudder and domestic policy to be whipped around by Wall Street, ineffective regulatory initiatives and virtually no budget control. Of course Americans demanded a change in direction. Swoosh went the pendulum to the other extreme, reminiscent of the Reagan/Thatcher swing, and the country awoke to Trump as president.

Certainly, right-of-center Republicans could have framed policies and campaigns to capture the ground claimed by Trump, but they did not. Certainly, left-of-center Democrats can anticipate the next swing and ride the pendulum to a new course for America, closer to the middle. But that is not happening. The magnetic poles are moving further apart, defined by a new socialism and globalism at one end and hyper-nationalism and protectionism at the other.  

No one can predict the timing of the pendulum’s swing, but it will come, it will be extreme, and many Americans will react with pain and anger. What is especially painful is that much of the momentum behind the pendulum today is symbolic and not substantive. The economy is strong, people are better off, our enemies are off-balance. But our leaders are unattractive and off-putting.

Can the pendulum be slowed to avoid the extremes? Yes, but with a comity that is unlikely, given the political and media personalities involved. For example, a “Bipartisan Pact for American Political Civility” between the White House and congressional Democrats to move America in a good direction might entail:

  • The president must apologize to all those he has gratuitously and inappropriately insulted;
  • The White House should cease public condemnation of the Department of Justice, FBI, CIA and IRS, allow the inspectors generals to do their work, and quietly move to improve management and reduce political abuses of power in those departments;
  • All sides should demand that their partisans in the media moderate their commentary and focus on policies and results in a fair and balanced way.

None of this will happen, of course, and no one would be entirely happy with this approach — many would see it as the “Faustian Bargain for America” — but it nonetheless would best serve America’s interests. The current process simply serves to corrode our institutions, rather than strengthening them. Self-serving extremists in both parties and the media are prevailing at the expense of the country.

Grady Means is a writer and retired corporate strategy consultant. He was an engineer at both Fairchild and Northrop, served as special assistant to Vice President Nelson Rockefeller for domestic policy in the Ford White House, and was an economist and policy analyst for Secretary Elliot Richardson in the former Department of Health, Education and Welfare from 1971-73.