But it is hard not to agree that the country is trending the wrong way, and has been for about a decade. It seems most people are content to look to assign blame (which in and of itself is a symptom of the disease). And in this column, Peggy Noonan does a bit of that, pointing at Obama's seeming disconnect from the country both in terms of policy and tone. But I don't think she really blames him, but rather sees his ascent to power as a symptom of the disease. And that disease is one that the Tea Party succumbed to this year, looking for the quick fix, for voting for passing celebrities rather than proven leaders. Noonan takes Sarah Palin to task for her fundamental unseriousness, then goes on to say:
Reagan's career is a guide, not only for the tea party but for all in politics. He brought his fully mature, fully seasoned self into politics with him. He wasn't in search of a life when he ran for office, and he wasn't in search of fame; he'd already lived a life, he was already well known, he'd accomplished things in the world.
Here is an old tradition badly in need of return: You have to earn your way into politics. You should go have a life, build a string of accomplishments, then enter public service. And you need actual talent: You have to be able to bring people in and along. You can't just bully them, you can't just assert and taunt, you have to be able to persuade.
I completely agree that we have been following the political equivalent of false prophets for a while, but I think Noonan's invocation of those who "earn their way into politics" is another potentially dangerous shortcut to an answer. If, in 2012, we elect someone with a history of service, of accomplishment, does that guarantee anything? Couldn't that, for example, refer to Richard Nixon about as well as Ronald Reagan? Or Lyndon Johnson? The problem is not that the experienced leaders aren't popular, it is that they are correctly seen by many Americans as having put us in our current bind, and so rather than think coherently about the best way out of this mess, they look for fresh faces. And unfortunately, some of those faces are essentially reality TV stars who have learned to espouse some catch phrases that fire up a good chunk of one political faction or another.
Which is why, despite its lack of concrete policy proposals or political suggestions, I really liked this David Brooks column on America's potential to be "The Crossroads Nation". Brooks manages to avoid the tired terms of our current debate about whether we need more stimulus, or what the tax rates should be, or if ObamaCare should be repealed. He looks to principles, and tries to express a vision for what our nation should stand for. I personally find it a moving vision:
In fact, the U.S. is well situated to be the crossroads nation. It is well situated to be the center of global networks and to nurture the right kinds of networks. Building that America means doing everything possible to thicken connections: finance research to attract scientists; improve infrastructure to ease travel; fix immigration to funnel talent; reform taxes to attract superstars; make study abroad a rite of passage for college students; take advantage of the millions of veterans who have served overseas.
In other words, he wants the nation to serve as a welcoming hub for entrepreneurs, thinkers and inventors from around the world. That vision both identifies a key, hard to compete with strength that our country has, and suggests a series of policies that should be pursued to make it happen. Some would appeal more to the right, some to the left. That might make it harder (or impossible) to pass, but it also suggests that it offers a way to escape the dull political pendulum swings that are marking time in our nation's current decline.