A long time ago, I learned from Bill Schneider, a very wise man, that in order to understand American politics, you have to understand the differences between an ideologue — a believer in a defined ideology — and a pragmatist — someone who instead is concerned with practical results. The ideologue believes that what is right works, but the pragmatist believes instead that what works is right. Americans, according to Schneider, are pragmatists who conclude that if something works, it is right.
That helps explain why the United States has had only two presidents in the last 54 years who served two terms and left office with a job rating of 65 percent favorable: Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Bill Clinton.
Reagan was elected at a time of high unemployment, double-digit inflation and double-digit interest rates. He promised to cut taxes by one-third, double the nation’s defense budget and balance the federal budget (two out of three ain’t bad). But four years later, after inflation was checked by raising interest rates to 21 percent and a recession where U.S. unemployment was the highest it had been since the Great Depression — Reagan could plausibly run for re-election and carry 49 states on a theme of “It’s morning again in America.”
Clinton won the White House at a time of then-record budget deficits, so instead of tax cuts, he championed tax increases on the highest-income Americans and a boost in the gasoline tax to close the deficit. Clinton passed his tax bill without the vote of a single Republican in the Senate or House of Representatives. Under Clinton, the federal deficit was cut, eventually the federal budget even balanced and the nation’s economy thrived, so much so that he in 1996 became the first Democratic president in 60 years to win re-election.
Tax cuts had worked under Reagan, and tax increases had worked under Clinton. Ideologues were confounded by the conflicting results, but pragmatists, who include most Americans, concluded that the totally contradictory “medicines” had both worked.
What Reagan and Clinton shared was a resilient — and contagious — optimism. Each of them, raised in frankly modest circumstances, became convinced early on that he could scale the heights. While Clinton was heir to the optimistic leadership legacy of Democrats Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, Reagan was really the first — along with Rep. Jack Kemp, R-N.Y. — to put a smiling face on American conservatism, which until then had been quite grumpy.
Conservatives fall into two groups: the five-minutes-to-midnight conservatives who tell us, “Yes, things are bad, but they’re going to get a lot worse,” and the five-minutes-to-sunrise conservatives who concede how bad things really are but are confident that if we just follow this policy, the darkness will lift and the warm sun will shine on America.
Contemporary conservatism suffers from an acute lack of cheerful optimism. Missing is that five-minutes-to-sunrise hopeful leader. Nowhere was that gloomy dyspepsia more evident than in the primary victory statement of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
After the obligatory nod to his vanquished primary opponent, McConnell launched into a diatribe against his Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes: “My opponent is in this race because Harry Reid and Barack Obama want her in this race. There’s a reason ... every Hollywood liberal is sending her a check. It’s not because they care about Kentucky, I can assure you of that. It’s because they know as well as we do that there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between a candidate who puts Harry Reid in charge and Harry Reid himself. A vote for my opponent is a vote for a guy who says coal makes us sick. A vote for my opponent is a vote for Obamacare and a president who sold it to us on a mountain of lies.”
That’s just a taste of the bile the senior Republican from Kentucky, seeking his sixth Senate term, offered in celebration. No ideas to unite the nation, to heal the economy, to comfort the afflicted. No lift of a driving dream or Reagan’s optimism. Just more bile in 2014.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.