David Reynolds: The Pendulum

Column by David Reynolds

As usual Thomas Jefferson got it right. He wrote, “The most effectual means of preventing the perversion of power into tyranny is to illuminate the minds of the people.” TJ would not have been pleased with the lack of illumination during the 2008 presidential campaign – much heat, little light. Jefferson wasn’t bombard by shouting TV heads or caught in the web. He could quietly sit back on the other side of the mountain and read and think. We are less fortunate.

Still, may I share a few thoughts with you on 2008? First, allow me to go back, not to Jefferson’s day, but to when Nelson Rockefeller was governor of New York state for 14 years. He was asked by a reporter what made him qualified for public office. He said, “Because I know what does not work.” He knew that it was more important to know when government spending was a good investment and when it was not – than saying change is the answer to everything that does not work.

I have a special appreciation for Nelson Rockefeller’s insight. After spending 26 years examining federal program proposals one gets to know which ones are good investments – those with built-in incentives and responsibilities – and which are not. Remember: Many conservatives were once liberals – until reality hit them.

We dearly wish to believe that change is synonymous with improvement. “Try It,” is our national motto. Why not? Americans eventually get it right after trying everything else.

That is why the pendulum has swung back and the Democrats are in line to take over Washington, with a good shot of adding a congressman from Virginia. But don’t be alarmed. This is all part of the ebb and flow of the public’s mood. It goes like this. Problems accumulate, which triggers a desire for change to solve those problems. Then we become tired of being hassled by Washington. And conservatism settles in to tell government to leave the people alone. Then problems accumulate again favoring the party of government to solve those problems and control the excesses of the private market. And so it goes.

Americans are in a sour mood these days. We want sweet talk from our candidates. No negatives. No talk about reforming institutions. No half measures. Just quick fixes. And all the health care we can not afford.

But I’m in a good mood. I vote for candidates – not against them. I don’t need a candidate to give away the candy store to make me happy. That’s not the government’s job. That’s my job.

In 2004 a third of those who cast a John Kerry ballot did so primarily because they wanted to cast a vote against President Bush. They were unhappy voters. Still are. In last week’s debate McCain had to remind Obama that he is not Bush.

Happiness comes from helping others, not in examining your navel. “Service above self,” Rotary International calls it. Whatever happened to JFK’s famous words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country?” Or his American University speech to cut taxes in order to stimulate the economy. Democrats have come a long way since the 1960s. Downhill.

For example, Mr. Obama’s focus is on the middle class. He refers to it as stationary. But according to the IRS, there has never been so much movement between the five economic classifications as there is today. Another point: I always assumed that the American dream is all about opportunity, the opportunity to move up, to be all that you can be, to be more successful than our parents and to go from a Chevy to a Caddy. I guess I got it wrong.

Something else to keep in mind when you vote for president, who is the head of the executive branch. It has just two primary functions: (1) our national security and (2) the redistribution of income or “spreading the wealth around” as one candidate calls it. If you want more of #1 and less of #2, go vote for Sen. McCain. If you want the reverse, go vote for Sen. Obama. If you want both, go rob a bank.

Now to choose. I like to think that I picked up a thought or two over the years. That is why I don’t care to roll the dice. Betting on this nation’s future is too big a gamble. We are a stable country. We haven’t had a revolution in 232 years. We prefer evolution. But that is difficult when the same party controls both the White House and the Congress. Yet, when the Republican Party controls the White House it demonstrates a lack of interest in governing. That, too, is unfortunate.

However, passing the torch to an unknown may work. But that’s asking a lot. It is asking me to reject lessons learned over a lifetime. So I will sleep better if John McCain sleeps at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. And if my man doesn’t win? And everything happens that his ads say will happen? No problem. The pendulum will swing back.





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