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Relearning Our Old Political Lessons

October 7, 2008 - John Whittaker

"The central point is what this war is doing to the United States itself, in terms of its potential to influence the world today, this draining of the material and moral resources of the country from our really pressing problems. It's the old Roman problem -- their policing of the Mediterranean world as Rome decayed at home."

John McCain or Barack Obama didn't utter those words.

They belong to Eugene McCarthy -- uttered forty years ago during his 1968 campaign for the Democratic Party's nomination for president.

Freaky, huh? Does that sound familiar at all?

A Note, And Then Picks For This Week

A quick note on how we'll use this space for a while. Posts will be written Monday, Wednesday and Friday -- if all things continue going as planned.

For a while, at least one post a week will be political - the least I can do seeing as how they're holding an election this fall and I happened to study political science and stuff. Picks blogs will be posted Fridays - so if any of you are taking part in a certain illegal activity in which money is wagered on football games, it can be of use to you. Not that gambling is legal or anything.


One of the things I've decided to do, until the election, is blog at least once a week on something political that you might not be hearing out of the candidates or the talking heads on CNN/MSNBC/Fox News. Knowing this, I have been breaking out the old political reading -- namely, the Making of a President series. The books are a wonderful look into past campaigns, as Theodore White captures not only the behind the scenes action of a political campaign, but puts it into the context of world events during the campaign.

Here is how White describes the nation early in 1968:

"The underlying crisis of the Western trading world provoked the great gold crisis of mid-March. The dollar quivered. Students rioted in Paris, Berlin and New York. The stock market -- the best indicator of investor anticipation and greed -- slithered about, sinking through the early months of the year, then soaring the morning of Lyndon Johnson's renunciation. The fever of inflation began, steadily, then more rapidly, to flush and overheat the entire system, stimulating an orgy of spending and of speculation."

And, consider this snippet from James Reston, also taken from Making of a President: 1968.

"The country, one feels, is looking for a new lead, for somebody who will come forward with a new philosophy and it is not finding the answer in Johnson or any of his political opponents. Washington is now the symbol of helplessness of the present day. … Yet the political opposition offers no alternative that commands the confidence of a majority of the people. The main crisis is not of Vietnam itself, or in the cities, but in the feeling that the political system for dealing with these things has broken down."

I didn't quote Eugene McCarthy and James Reston to show you how well read I am. I do think that Theodore White shows us two things -- issues don't exist in a vacuum, and problems tend to be cyclical.

Let me explain.

Wars overseas eat money like me eating a pizza -- fast. It's an unarguable fact. We have to pay the troops. We have to buy their equipment. We give out foreign aid. Moving troops and equipment costs money in and of itself. Those soldiers have to eat. It was the same in Vietnam as it is now. Wars cost money.

The economic stimulus package and the government buying up bad debt is a tough pill to swallow - I mean, who's got $840 billion laying around under their mattress? It has to come from somewhere. Put that $840 billion on top of billions a year in war spending, and you're talking real money. Stack that on top of other entitlement spending -- Medicaid, Social Security, food stamp programs, HEAP, CDBG -- worthwhile programs all, by the way, and you're talking about a whole hineyload of money.

Paying for one of them is doable. Paying for two of them means a tax increase. Paying for the whole mess means the economy is likely to have a few hiccups, domestic infrastructure takes a backseat to foreign affairs and entitlement spending and the country ends up with no clear direction.

Historically, times of great surplus have been followed by what we have now -- raging debt, decreasing consumer confidence, a flagging stock market and, usually, a shooting war overseas. You can look it up.

As much as this election is becoming about the economy given the stock market's recent case of the runs, it ends up being a referendum on the Iraq/Afghanistan wars and their relation to the national wealth.

This story, too, is not new.

It's a debate that has been raging, in different forms, since World War I, when isolationists said the United States should stay out of Europe's wars because it would end up costing the country too much to meddle in overseas adventures. The same argument was made during the run-up to World War II. It came to a head during the Vietnam War.

A lot of the turmoil we saw in 1968 isn't likely to happen in 2008 -- but the issues and thinking are essentially identical. Spending is skyrocketing due to unpopular events. The stock market ate some bad chicken and doesn't feel particularly well. There is a hotly contested election to replace a president whose approval ratings over the last three years look amazingly like David Duchovny's career after he left the X-Files.

I'm not saying the War on Terror is a bad thing. I'm not saying entitlement spending is a bad thing. I'm not even saying the economic stimulus package is a bad thing.

I'm saying the McCain and Obama campaigns need to start telling the American people how they're going to handle multiple crises at the same time. They can have an answer for the economic issues, but if nothing is done about spending, nothing will change. They can fix Social Security, but if they do nothing about the economy, Social Security won't stay fixed.

They can say they'll end the war, or handle the war differently, but, taken by itself, fighting the War on Terror differently won't fix what ails us.

It's not partisan politics. It's just good old historical fact.


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