In Need of Optimism

I am, anyway, after the disappointment of President Bush’s speech tonight. It comes from no less a source than Michael Barone, the most grown-up of American political commentators. Read it all; a paragraph or two won’t do it justice. Barone looks at the history of the last thirty years in America and Great Britain:

When you look back at all these leaders’ job ratings in office, you find an interesting thing. The transformational Thatcher and Reagan had negative to neutral job ratings during most of their longer years in power. Thatcher’s peaked upward after the Falklands victory; Reagan peaked from his re-election until the Iran-Contra scandal broke two years later. Their divisiveness, the stark alternative they presented with the policies and conventional wisdom of the past — all these held down their job ratings.

In contrast, Blair and Clinton for most of their years in office had quite high job ratings. Blair’s ratings for his first eight years were probably the highest in British history. Clinton, after he got over his lurch to the left in 1993-94, also enjoyed high job ratings, especially when he was threatened with impeachment. The center-left alternative, by accepting most of the Thatcher and Reagan programs, was relatively uncontroversial, determinedly consensus-minded, widely acceptable to the left, center-left and much of the center-right segments of the electorate.

Thus, the crunchy, confrontational right was in its years in power not so widely popular as the soggy, consensus-minded center-left. Yet surely history will regard Thatcher and Reagan as more consequential leaders than Blair and Clinton.

Barone applies these lessons to today’s political landscape:

It is in this context that we should consider George W. Bush’s current poor job ratings. For all the high ratings for center-left leaders, it remains true in America and Britain that the policies of the right are more acceptable than the policies of the left — and are capable of beating the center-left, too.

It is in the nature of things that the right, while sharply defining the issues and winning most serious arguments, should also stir more bitter opposition than the soothing, consensus-minded center-left. All the more so because Old Media in this country, more than in Britain, is dominated by a left that incessantly peppers the right with ridicule and criticism, while it lavishes the center-left with celebration and praise.

Even so, we continue to live in the world of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, as we once lived in the world of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

As I say, a needed dose of far-sighted optimism on a dark day.

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