The Way Ahead: How We Got Here

By Jack Atherton-email

2008 could be a watershed election, though not necessarily in the way we've been told.

If the GOP's John McCain is elected, it looks like he'll have to deal with a Democrat-controlled Congress. Divided government may lead to gridlock or, at best, a middling degree of change.

If Barack Obama is elected we'll see major change. Senator Obama is a liberal - more liberal than Bill Clinton was in 1992, when he ran as a Southern moderate. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are also liberals, and more combative than their predecessors Tom Foley and George Mitchell were in '92, when Congress was less polarized.

That means the change Obama is promising would be a sharp turn to the left. But what does that really mean?  Rather than analyze particular policy proposals, as I have in past columns, let's broaden our scope and consider history, starting on common ground.

Can we all agree that Americans don't cotton to kings? Oh sure, it'll be stirring to watch Wills one day ascend the throne. The British throne. But America pretty much shook off our fascination with monarchy in 1783.

That's when an otherwise profligate Congress - yes, some things never change - refused to pay General Washington's troops. Those soldiers who had suffered so much to achieve victory threatened a coup. At stake: America's experiment with democracy. Instead of mounting his charger and making a grand speech, Washington unexpectedly walked into a meeting of the mutinous officers and opened a letter from a member of Congress, explaining why the government was so hard up. Then the Commander-in-Chief - who had risked one of America's greatest fortunes and his own neck to fight for this new nation conceived in liberty - pulled out a pair of glasses. The officers were startled to see that he needed them. "Gentlemen," said Washington with a small smile, "you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country."

The rebellion was quelled.

Back in England, King George asked the American painter Benjamin West what Washington would do next. West replied, "They say he will go back to his farm." "If he does that," said the incredulous king, "he will be the greatest man in the world."

He did and he was. Called the "American Cincinnatus" after the Roman general who also returned to his farm, Washington inspired the name of our fair city. But his country, by acclamation, soon called him back to service, and Washington's wisdom in setting precedents -- his strength combined with a spirit of conciliation -- made him our greatest president.

Washington was also our first and last consensus pick. Thereafter, political parties (the "factions" he so dreaded) diverged along lines that mirrored the evolving definitions of liberal and conservative.

Most of our founders were liberals. In the 18th century that meant they favored government, not of divinely deputized monarchs, but of the people, from whose inalienable natural rights government derived its authority. But our founders disagreed about the nature of government. Alexander Hamilton and his Federalist party sought a strong, centralized authority to manage the economy of the newly united states. Hamilton's arch-rival Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican party wanted to retain the more diffuse powers of individuals and their individual states.

As time passed, the issue grew into one of self-reliance versus collectivism: equality of opportunity versus equality of outcomes. American conservatives believed Jefferson's credo "all men are created equal" meant that all people -once we overcame slavery and sexism -- were entitled to equal rights under the law, but not equal results. Conservatives accepted as inevitable that some would be born better off than others -- or with greater talent or drive or just better luck - leading, inevitably, to disparities of wealth.

By contrast, the new liberalism of the 19th century sought a redistribution of wealth. One extreme example: utopian communes that sprang up in a number of places, including Ohio. Sometimes inspired by Biblical teachings on the virtue of eschewing private property, they also owed a lot to European socialism. This puzzled conservatives, who saw America -- not as a European, class-bound society where it was almost impossible to rise above one's station -- but rather as a land of boundless opportunity where even the poorest citizens could strive to become millionaires.

Although relatively few Americans did become millionaires, average standards of living remained high enough to keep socialism at bay, even among immigrants who saw themselves - not as victims - but on the threshold of working their way into the middle class.

But then came the Great Depression. The crash of '29 was brought about by unchecked speculation and other excesses of capitalism. Yet government intervention shared some of the blame for the ensuing catastrophe, notably the Smoot Hawley tariffs that choked off free trade.

Lawyers have a saying: Hard cases make bad law. The depth of the Depression made it impossible to settle for mincing measures. Whereas, at the turn of the century, the GOP's Theodore Roosevelt could temper capitalism with a "Square Deal" that included busting trusts, the Democrats' Franklin Roosevelt and his Depression-era "New Deal" vastly expanded federal control over every aspect of the economy, from hiring to retirement. Supporters say big government intervention staved off revolution. Critics contend it deepened the Depression (which ended only with World War II) and created a new culture of dependency.

As an example they cite Aid to Families with Dependent Children. The program commonly called welfare started in the 1930s as a safety net for widows. It morphed into a giant bureaucracy that provided subsidies to mothers - many of them teenagers - so long as there was no man in the house. This helped destroy traditional families. Generations of children, especially in the inner cities, grew up without fathers and with mothers beholden to the state - and to politicians who promised more and more transfer payments in exchange for votes.

Finally, in 1992, Bill Clinton ran for the White House vowing welfare reform. The Democrat-controlled Congress he first worked with let the matter languish. But when Republicans in 1994 won control of the House for the first time in 40 years, they passed a bill that Clinton at first vetoed, and then -- with the '96 election looming-- eventually signed, while promising Democratic critics he would "fix" the new rules after the election. Thank goodness he never did. Clinton now cites welfare reform as one of his landmark achievements.

Sadly, that achievement and others - like balanced budgets during the later Clinton years - were possible only due to divided government. When either party controls all three branches of government-the White House, Congress and the federal courts - incumbents become complacent and corrupt. We saw it after the "Gingrich Revolution" of 1994 installed Reagan Republicans. In short order they succumbed to big money interests and went on a spending spree. Disgusted voters then returned control to the Democrats, only to see Congress under House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Reid sink to its lowest approval level in history.

Which brings us to the present. Throughout our history, change has come in response to cataclysms, corruption, or simply boredom. Now change is coming again - whoever gets elected. What direction that change will take, and how sweeping it will be, is what we'll decide in November.

But George Washington must be grinding his (ivory and gold, not wooden) teeth to see how the capital that bears his name has become mired in factionalism and self-interest -- and how few professional politicians are ever willing to go back to their farms.