Hams on Wry with Malaise

Last week Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he had a “gut feeling” that we were at a higher risk of a big terrorist attack this summer.  How’s that for a confidence-builder?   We may live or we may die, but either way we’ll be worried.  Morituri te salutant, Mr. Secretary.

Americans — conservatives and liberals alike — want our government to work.  We demand competence and need reasons to be confident, especially in time of war.  But now, six years into the Bush administration and six months into the Democrats’ control of Congress, we see neither.  Congress and the White House are in a race to the bottom of the polls and no matter which wins, America is destined to be the loser. 

There is a malaise in Washington.  Not in America, but among our elected leaders.  They complain about each other — excessive partisanship, unwillingness to compromise, whatever — but neither party is about to lead us out of the status quo. (Which, we should remember, Ronald Reagan said was Latin for “the mess we’re in.”) 

We’ve seen this before.  Jimmy Carter tried to shift the blame for his administration’s ineptitude to the citizenry.  In his July 1979 “malaise speech,” Carter told us we were suffering a “moral and spiritual crisis.” By redefining Americans’ loss of confidence in government he transferred responsibility for his own failures to us.  His successor knew us better, and by injecting competence and decisiveness, proved there was no malaise among Americans, only among our pols.  That was the lesson of the Reagan administration, which every administration since has forgotten.

Americans are pretty practical people.  Conservatives and liberals see different problems and different solutions, but both want the government to accomplish the solutions rather than whine about the problems.  But in half a year of control of Congress the liberals have provided redundant proofs of the lessons of Carter.  Yes, the Bush administration hasn’t done much better, focusing on its awful immigration bill, turning a blind eye to the impossibility of succeeding in Iraq without taking on Iran and Syria, and expecting us to have confidence in people such as Chertoff and Attorney General Gonzales. 

Next year, the Dems will run on the most brazen “reform” platform:  incumbents running against themselves, shifting — Carter-like — the blame to Republicans and the nation as a whole.  Republican presidential candidates — and most in Congress — will be running against the President’s policies.  And — so far — neither party is guilty of leadership and decisiveness.  The ghost of Jimmy Carter’s malaise haunts them both. 

Last week, Lil’ Billy was back out on the campaign trail, joking that some people think the Clintons were yesterday’s news, but “yesterday’s news was pretty good.”  As Bob Novak said, it’s dangerous for the Dems to campaign for a third Clinton presidential term.  It’s necessary for Republicans to campaign on just what that would mean. 

Clinton’s philosophy was the same as that of Edwin Edwards, who — while Louisiana governor and before being sent to the slammer — became famous for the “laissez les bons temps rouler” theory of government: let the good times roll.  For Clinton that became, “don’t worry, be happy.” 

But these aren’t good times, they are dangerous times.  Hillary and the rest of the Dems have escaped serious scrutiny in the Bush years.  When asked how they would win the war, they have no answer other than withdrawing from Iraq.  Whatever the problem, their only answer is, “it’s Bush’s problem, not ours.”

To counter this, Republicans need to do more than echo the Democrats’ “we’re not them” mantra.  Republicans can’t campaign on vague ideas or promises to reduce the partisanship in Washington.  There is an encouraging glimmer of understanding among some elected conservatives.

When Sens. Sessions (R-Al), Cornyn (R-Tx), DeMint (R-SC), Coburn (R-Ok) and Vitter (R-La) stood fast against the Bush-McKennedy immigration disaster, they committed an act of leadership.  America lit up their phone banks (and others, overloading and crashing the Senate phone system at one point) to praise them.  Not for sitting idly by and letting their opponents roll over them. 

That example is inapposite, because those gentlemen were standing on an easy and basic principle.  The public was already behind them, and they seized the moment.  Next year, Republican presidential candidates will have to lead a reluctant public to believe that Republicans are worthy of the trust that is now both the Democratic Congress and the Republican White House do not inspire.

There’s only one way to do that: the way Ronald Reagan did.  Speak directly to Americans, not to the press.  Engage in the battle of ideas, in which the Democrats are always the losers.  Answer the questions Americans are asking with ideas that demonstrate the ability to make tough choices. Such as. 

The war in Iraq is not going well.  But is only one part of the war against terrorists and the nations that support them.  Whether or not Iraq becomes a democracy is vastly less important than forcing the terrorist-sponsoring nations out of that business.  Republicans need to say that fighting a war in a manner not calculated to win it decisively puts us on a path to lose it inevitably.

Our economy continues to boom, but it can’t and won’t if we raise taxes and leave our borders unsecured.  The burden of illegal immigration will sink our economy, destroy Social Security and Medicare and leave us with an unassimilated underclass that threatens a balkanized America.  Politicians bewail our over-dependence on foreign oil, but no one other than Sen. Pete Domenici is pushing to build alternative nuclear power.  Domenici has the right ideas but hasn’t the stature to deliver on them. 

Raised by a World War 2 mud marine, I learned at a very early age that a leader can gain the confidence of his people on one of two foundations.  The false one is charisma — the Clinton quality — which elevates personality over ability.  The other is command presence, which is defined by competence and decisiveness proven under stress. 

It is not necessary to have proven competence and decisiveness with a rifle on the battlefield.  Republicans don’t need to draft a retired general to win next year.  But they need to look long and hard at their candidates.  Who among them seeks the leadership of our nation on a foundation of command presence and can be relied on to live up to that standard in the future?