HAMPTON, N.H. — The public is fed up with Congress. It’s not enamored of the president. This month’s fiscal follies soon will be followed by several sad reprises. The political class is in disrepute.
We know that Barack Obama will soon disappear from the political scene, but many of the principals in the spending and debt crisis will be back — and will be here, in New Hampshire, site of the first presidential primary, in 2016. Obama’s eclipse and their ambitions should be prompting deep introspection about what America wants and what it needs for its next president.
The next election is 36 months away, but already the contours of the next campaign are evident. It is not uplifting or illuminating. Here’s the dreary libretto of what awaits us:
Is Hillary Clinton going to run? If so, does she clear the Democratic field of everybody except that reliable golden retriever, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.? Is Biden too old and too much of a re-tread?
Which of the Republican rebels — Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas — will run? Will a mainstream Republican get into the race? What are Chris Christie’s intentions after next week’s election in New Jersey? Can a GOP insurgent emerge with enough support to win the nomination? To win the race and avoid an electoral disaster like 1964 (Barry Goldwater on the right) or 1972 (George S. McGovern on the left)?
The fact is that all of these questions are the wrong ones — and, yes, I have sinned, having written about most, if not all, of them. They are a distraction from the main question, which is this:
What does the United States need in 2016 after two terms of George W. Bush and two terms of Barack Obama, 16 years that, as Churchill, borrowing from the Book of Joel, might have said, the locusts ate? (These two administrations are perhaps the only American two-term presidencies that accord with Benjamin Disraeli’s characterization of the government of Lord John Russell: “It was a weak government, and therefore durable.”)
First, a look at what the locusts have consumed:
The chance to adapt the United States to a global economy unlike the one that existed at the beginning of the period, which roughly coincided with the new millennium. The chance to align the nation’s staggering entitlement obligations with the demographics of the new nation, which bears no relation to the world of 1935 (the birth of Social Security), or 1965 (the birth of Medicare), or even 1983 (the adjustments made to Social Security by a bipartisan committee that included Alan Greenspan, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Robert J. Dole, figures who have no analogue in contemporary America).
But wait! There’s more:
The chance to understand the new balance of power in the world, which bears no resemblance to the one that Bush struggled to understand in 2001. The chance to understand how disruptive technology and new media have transformed how we communicate and — far more important — how we learn and how we think.
Plus these: The chance to come to grips with the biggest but most ignored domestic crisis the nation faces in the run-up to the third decade of the 21st century, the failure of almost all but the 1 percent to save enough money for retirement. The chance to fix the higher-education crisis in a meaningful way, not the anti-intellectual impulse Obama succumbed to when he sought to measure the value of education by measuring the salaries of 23-year-olds with college diplomas.
And now to the nominees themselves and their fitness to rise above the din and address the unaddressed.
So much about presidential candidates and campaigns is unpredictable. Henry Adams, related to two presidents, is quoted in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book, scheduled for publication in a fortnight, as calling William Howard Taft “the best equipped man for the presidency who had been suggested by either party” during his lifetime.
Should that matter? Asking the question seems preposterous, but similar descriptions could be offered for John Quincy Adams, Herbert Hoover and Richard M. Nixon. This sort of political figure — overachievers when young, underachievers when inaugurated — sometimes makes for political disasters. That may not be good news for Clinton.
There are exceptions: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, George H.W. Bush. And some of those who were underestimated as candidates (James K. Polk, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan) turned out to be estimable presidents. Maybe that’s good news for Biden.
Then, there is the phenomenon of the soaring comet, the candidate coming out of nowhere but surely going somewhere. Jimmy Carter and Obama are not encouraging precedents for Cruz, Paul and Rubio (and you can add Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York to this list).
Intellectuals in office? Supporters of Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts almost certainly know that Woodrow Wilson’s record as president has been debated furiously for a century, with A. Scott Berg weighing in with a luminous new biography this fall — maybe the best nonfiction book of 2013 — that rekindles the fight.
So, forget the notion that there is a formula for presidential success. For every Theodore Roosevelt (accidental president who became a formidable president) there is a Martin Van Buren (highly experienced as secretary of state and vice president but who failed to be re-elected).
For all the talk in the capital about big issues — big expenditures, big entitlements, most of all big political stakes — there is depressingly little talk about the big questions.
Instead, the political class is preoccupied with particulars, most of which will be forgotten by the time the new president is inaugurated in January 2017. The talk is of how radioactive is Cruz, or alternatively how attractive he is. Of whether and how Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana maneuvers himself back into the conversation after describing the Republicans as “the stupid party.” About how Hillary and Bill Clinton have established a powerhouse fundraising machine.
None of that will rate even a sentence in any legitimate history of 2016. Then again, all the questions that haven’t been addressed all century will be omitted, as well.
We worry in this country about sins of commission. It’s the sins of omission that are burying us.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.