2007-11-09 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

The Fire Next Time
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

The next presidential election is still a long way off, but it's already beginning to intrude on America's consciousness. We've already had a series of debates, with candidates from both parties going at one another in their respective forums, and the nightly news programs carry a steady tale of political potshots and hot shots.

On the Democratic side, former First Lady and now New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton seems to have a commanding lead.

The first female to distinguish herself as a viable candidate for the U.S. presidency, Senator Clinton looks well-positioned to take the White House in 2008, because of the country's decided shift to the Democratic side of the ledger.

After seven years of the Bush presidency, Americans are tired of the Iraq war, which our current president got us into, and have been listening to an endless litany of complaints about George Bush since he was inaugurated in 2000. That takes its toll.

Bush hasn't made things better for himself, either, by fumbling in a number of areas, most noticeably in his intermittent and often indecisive public responses to the incessant charges leveled against him. He's routinely blamed for just about everything, from global warming to global anti-Americanism, and from Hurricane Katrina to the latest rash of raging brush fires in southern California.

It's all Bush's fault, the Democrats incessantly intone, and a largely sympathetic national media turn up the amplifier to get that message out. After seven years of this stuff, it's not surprising Americans seem ready for a change.

In 2006, they showed this by voting out enough Congressional Republicans to hand Democrats the majority in both Congressional houses, putting the Bush administration on permanent defensive going into the final years of its tenure. Democratic majorities in Congress now combine to keep the pressure on by keeping the investigations simmering, by starting up new ones at the drop of a hat, and by constantly scurrying about in search of some big administration scandal, which will finally bring the Bush presidency down.

The Democrats learned this game back in the Watergate years (when Richard Nixon self-destructed under the fire of Congressional hearings). After trying and failing to get a fullcourt Watergate replay during the Reagan years, via the Iran-Contra investigations (Reagan's presidency, unlike Nixon's, survived), Congressional Democrats kept at it during the oneterm presidency of the elder Bush. During the Clinton administration, which followed, Republicans embarked on their own get-the-president crusade, trying to gin up the same kind of hearings and investigations against Bill Clinton that their Democratic predecessors had turned loose on Reagan and Bush. In this they had plenty of help from Clinton himself, of course, a seemingly inveterate womanizer with a penchant for sweet-talking the American public and triangulating his politics.

Republicans eventually built a Congressional majority for themselves, however, more through Clintonian missteps than their own cleverness. The evidence for this is found in the miserable way GOP lawmakers comported themselves when they finally won the majority.

With one of their own, George W. Bush, in the White House, Republicans proved no less capable of spending American taxpayers' money than the Democratic majorities they had supplanted.

In so doing, they opened a pathway to the Democratic resurgence we ultimately saw in 2006. Now, with Americans tired of President Bush's clumsy locutions and awkward grins, and of hearing about how bad he is (despite the remarkably strong economy his low taxation policies have nurtured and facilitated and which the mainstream media rarely deigns to remark on), Americans seem set to turn the page, glad to be able to choose anyone but the hapless George Bush.

Who will they choose? The Democratic candidates have the inside track, to be sure, and Hillary Clinton has the advantage among the Democrats. On the Republican side it looks like it's coming down to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former "front runner" Arizona Senator John McCain, or former actor and former Senator, Fred Thompson. But so far, none of them can boast a commanding lead.

Looking forward, Hillary Clinton brings a lot to the race, whoever her opponent turns out to be. She's smart and has an experienced political machine behind her, with plenty of dough. Moreover, Democrats have been longing for a restoration of Clintonian dominance in Washington since Al Gore lost to George Bush in 2000, and Hillary can give them a Clinton at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue again. Indeed, she can provide two Clintons for the price of one, as Bill put it in his first campaign when he famously promised American voters that they could "buy one; get one free."

Bill, of course, would join Hillary if she wins as the country's new, not to mention first, "First Man."

Not every voter finds this appealing, however. Though Bill Clinton presided over a relatively peaceful and prosperous period in the country's history, it was on his watch that our military preparedness rapidly deteriorated, after all, and al Qaeda, our self-declared mortal enemy, grew big enough to do us real harm.

Indeed, one can worry about seeing the Clintons back in the White House for far more reasons than Bill's roving hands or Hillary's penchant for imposing big government solutions. The Democrats, themselves, have shifted substantially further to the left over the past seven partisan years than they ever were during Bill's tenure. And they come with the Clinton presidential package, too.

If people want bigger government and higher taxes, the Democrats, including Hillary, are prepared to provide that.

But the Republicans haven't proved much better about the size of government if you tote up the spending on their watch (though they were at least better on taxation and regulation, thereby sustaining the economy over the past seven years). As we come down to '08 and the choosing of a new American president, we're going to have to weigh a great many things.

None of the candidates, on either side of the ledger, is perfect. But who we vote for should be driven by more than our petty dislikes or partisan affiliations.

We need to look at the world at large and consider where we're headed.

The Senator from New York offers a return to the Clinton years, when everything looked calm on the surface but was roiling underneath. On the Republican side, no one has undertaken to share the Bush legacy (he's too widely reviled by the punditocracy for that). But his policies have not only kept the economy pumping, they've kept us safe in the wake of 9/11, when no one ever thought we'd be safe again. Despite Osama bin Laden's continuing threats, broadcast from the remotest regions on the Pakistani-Afghan border, the Bush administration's vigilance and commitment to safeguarding our shores has paid dividends.

While we can never afford to let our guard down again, putting it up and keeping it that way has taken courage and vision by an administration faced with an campaign to smear its intentions and personal reputations.

The next president, whoever he or she is, will first and foremost have to carry on the Bush legacy of keeping this country safe. The only way you can do that is by taking the battle to those who would destroy us. Will Hillary Clinton be the person to do that job or would we be better off with a Giuliani or a Romney or one of the other GOP hopefuls? The next election promises to be a critical one; our choices more unorthodox than ever before. But we have to choose based on what the country needs, not on old grudges or hatreds. Do we want to turn back the clock to another Clinton presidency or turn it forward by choosing a feisty ex-mayor, as yet untested on international matters, or a businessman turned governor, or one of the many others? There's quite a bit riding on this one. It's a good thing there's still time to do some serious thinking. rockirreg@ aol.com.

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