Meacham: Perspective Versus Cynicism

History can be a problem. if you spend a lot of time thinking about the political past, you tend to see the events of the present time differently than you do if you are consumed by the passions of the hour. A habit of mind that puts most things in context with what has happened before—weighing them, if you will, to gauge their gravity in comparison to ages past—has its virtues and its vices. The chief virtue is that you probably know how we got to a certain point, and that things have almost always been worse. The chief vice is that a historical sensibility can be seductively numbing, producing a kind of reflexive cynicism and even self-importance. Well, if you knew what I know, then you wouldn't think Sarah Palin is an issue—hell, just remember George Wallace. Or: You think Obama's a radical? This guy is a hopeless gradualist. LBJ would wipe the floor with him.

I struggle with this tension between perspective and cynicism all the time, and I suspect many of you do, too. We are currently in one of our episodic bursts of Washington-is-broken conventional wisdom. Twenty years ago, in the administration of George H.W. Bush, it was called gridlock; 200 years ago, in the administration of George Washington, it was called—negatively— "the spirit of party," an era in which "party" tended to mean faction or narrow interest. We have been here before and will be here again. Evan Bayh is applying for this year's Cincinnatus Award; previous aspirants include Bill Bradley. Given the polls—Obama's approval rating is below 50 percent in the new NEWSWEEK survey—the 44th president looks likely to repeat the experience of the 42nd. After a successful, change-oriented campaign, a young Democratic president fails to succeed politically with a largely center-right country, and pays for it with a thrashing at the midterms. And so it goes.

Knowing that history, though, does not really solve any of the challenges at hand, from unemployment and stagnant growth to entitlement reform and the threat of terrorism. What a long view should do, I think, is give people on both sides of the perennial partisan divide an appreciation that the rhetoric of apocalypticism is hyperbolic and ultimately of little utility. By its very nature politics is fluid, and the winning of elections does not automatically translate into the resolution of problems. It would be terrific if it did, but it does not.

There is a significant disconnect in the political conversation between tactics (who wins, who loses) and strategy (where we want to go, what we want to accomplish). Tactically, the Republicans are having a great season. Strategically, if they were in charge, what would be different? That was the question that got us to this week's cover, in which we examine how Republicans would be governing if they had their way. Congressman Paul Ryan, a well-regarded GOP lawmaker, contributes an essay on fiscal responsibility and the most sensitive of political and economic subjects: American entitlements.

The predominant public theme for Republicans and conservatives is that what they say are the Obama administration's big-government, high-spending, terrorist-coddling policies are leading us to perdition. The problem is that it is difficult to envision how radical a difference a John McCain presidency would have made, given the circumstances of 2009. The caveat here is health reform, which McCain would not have pursued, but, rhetorically, the Republicans are the victims of their own success: health reform has not passed, ergo it has not dragged us into a dark socialist future.

There is an interesting point to be found in the NEWSWEEK Poll. We asked people whether they think Obama or Republicans in Congress have a better approach to major issues, aside from health care. On seven of the nine issues tested—including those related to the economy and foreign wars that polling shows to be the public's top priorities—Obama holds a double-digit lead over congressional Republicans. On the eighth issue—how to deal with federal debt and deficits—he leads by nine points. On the ninth issue, terrorism, Republicans have a four-point advantage.

The GOP will have a good year in the way tacticians measure these things. They will win seats; Obama's numbers will not magically rise. Republicans should enjoy opposition while they can, for with authority comes responsibility. On that point history is very clear.