Mark Shields: End of cold war, 2017 American politics
In 1988, a full year before the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet empire broke up, Georgy Arbatov, a Soviet expert on the United States, offered this prophetic prediction about how the end of the Cold War would change the United States: “We are going to do a terrible thing to you. We are going to deprive you of an enemy.” He was right. Without the concrete threat of the Soviet Union, U.S. national policy would indeed lose both its organizing principle and its national consensus.
He has long gone to his eternal reward, but Arbatov would have been able to explain what is going on in political Washington in the winter of 2017 by reminding us that an American presidential campaign — before Election Day — also provides a convenient “enemy,” in the form of a common Opponent who, because that Opponent represents a threat to all the values and traditions Our Side holds dear, must be stopped at all costs.
Truth be told, political campaigns, in which candidates are expected to make popular promises about dreamy possibilities while lampooning their opponents, are fun. Campaigns are full of bands and balloons and bunting. Crowds turn out, and they cheer. A national campaign is a unique civic enterprise in which all can share.
But a presidential campaign is also the political equivalent of a one-day sale. On a known date (the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November), we learn the public verdict after all the work, sweat and money spent — whether our side won or lost.
Then intrudes reality. Mario Cuomo, an eloquent Democratic governor of New York, said it best: “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.” Governing is difficult. Governing is messy, time-consuming and hard work. Forget the campaign slogans of action verbs and simple solutions. (“Repeal and replace,” anyone?)
Policy, unlike campaign promises, must be specific, not vague. Policy is made by hardworking professionals, most of whom are career public servants who have spent their professional lifetime mastering a specific subject. You won’t see these public servants on the Sunday shows or guesting on Colbert or Kimmel. Their work is not glamorous. But they understand what winning candidates often do not: Though you can demonize the other side at a campaign rally, to pass a bill and make law, you need to compromise with the other side.
President Donald Trump obviously misses the campaign circus, the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd. He seeks to recapture the magic of the life full of rallies, when there were no fact-checks and naysayers were shown the gate by hired security — and when Hillary Clinton was the Enemy.
But now, in the respected Pew Research Center’s poll, he confronts the unwelcome reality of a historically low — for a new president — 39 percent favorable job rating (some 25 percentage points lower than that of Barack Obama at the same point). History tells us that new presidents who achieve legislative victories do it very early in their administrations, during the time-limited honeymoon. By the end of the first year, congressional members of the president’s party become consumed with concern about their own re-election.
And for good reason. Since World War II, in midterm elections when a president’s job rating in the Gallup Poll has been below 50 percent approval, the president’s party has lost an average of 37 House seats. (When a president’s job rating is above 50 percent, the House loss has averaged just 14 seats.)
Time is not on President Trump’s side. Noisy rallies and running against Hillary Clinton may have provided a sugar high. But governing requires hard work, humility, introspection, information and thought, all of which are currently in short supply in the Oval Office.