know all about hope. We hope for good snow. Then we hope for spring. We
hope for an NCAA Tournament berth. We hope to get out of the driveway
before the plow comes back. We hope for a snow day. We hope our kids
get into the college they want. We hope that this time the promises of
a downtown economic revival are real.
Hope. Hope. Hope.
We live in hope. It is not audacious to
hope. It’s sometimes just the best thing we can do. Maybe it’s because,
for the first time in memory, our town is not hurting economically as
much as the rest of the country seems to be that this presidential
campaign, with its central theme of hope, seems a little bit out of
Yet it is sweet to hear a candidate
speaking of hope. Barack Obama sings of hope, and his voice gets better
every day. Hillary Clinton crows about experience, and indeed she
sounds more experienced as the weeks wear on.
And John McCain, the ever-cautious elder
voice, puts his hope in fear. His speeches speak of the hope that our
fears of Islamic extremism, as he likes to call it, will cause us to
vote for him. This was the unifying thread behind the Mitt Romney,
McCain, and even the Mike Huckabee campaigns—that visceral fear might
trump lofty hope in the end. The gamble for McCain is whether the
Republicans can stir up enough fear in us without us identifying them
with the things that go bump in the night.
The McCain/Obama contrast is stark. When
I hear Obama being compared to John Kennedy, I think the listeners
aren’t reading history enough. Kennedy did exude youth, but not easy
optimism. His was a call to service, a reminder to a nation that
challenges loomed on the horizon, and there was work to be done.
Kennedy was a taskmaster; Obama plays the preacher and the organizer,
You would have to go back in history to
Franklin Roosevelt to find a president whose stock in trade was,
genuinely, hope. Roosevelt famously told the nation in his first
inaugural in 1933 that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
At the moment he uttered those words, every bank in the country was
either closed or poised to defend itself against a run that would have
destroyed the nation’s already tottering financial system. The day
after Roosevelt said it, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. So
he actually told a lie. There was lots to be scared of, but we didn’t
need to hear that.
And what we need to hear today, in a
country divided over a needless war, in an economy that splits us into
haves and have-nots, is hope. Obama talks about hope as something that
can unite us. And it can. But for how long? At some point government
has to deliver the goods. New Orleans must be rebuilt. Health care has
to get to sick people. Defense spending should go to defense, not
If Clinton and Obama were to write a book together, they might call it It Takes a Village to Hope Audaciously.
But in that village, there surely must be an accountant. The Democratic
heavyweights lift up competing visions of a world different from the
one that George W. Bush will leave behind (in exactly 299 days). Neither of them wants to spoil the mood, but there is one
reality that should put the brakes on anyone’s notion of hope: Dubya’s
budget deficit leaves the next president without much room to do much
of anything than pay off his bills. While Dubya called himself a
conservative and to this day gets away with blaming the Democrats for
runaway federal spending, the Bush-Cheney administration has run budget
deficits every single year of this presidency.
Compare that to the Bill Clinton record.
After being handed a balanced federal budget, Bush began to run a
deficit equal to 1.5 percent of Gross Domestic Product in 2002. The
following year it rose to 3.5 percent, then increased to 3.6 percent in
2004, before declining to just under 2 percent in 2006. Contrast that
with Clinton’s last four years, during which the federal government
actually ran a surplus. That hadn’t happened since they
started keeping serious national income accounts.
Bill Clinton followed another Republican
president, the first George Bush, who claimed to be a budget slasher,
but who also governed with red ink. Ronald Reagan ran budgets that were
out of balance by amounts equal to roughly 5 percent of GDP for most of
the 1980s. In 1986, the Reagan deficit topped out at a post-World War
II record of 6 percent. In 12 years of Reagan and Bush the father, the
country heard about balanced budgets only at election time. Record
spending on the military in the Reagan years led to a federal deficit
so great that his successor had to raise taxes to cover it, and
lost his job in the process.
Bill Clinton will be remembered as the
man who paid Reagan’s bills. Any time a Democrat gets near the Oval
Office, the bank is broken. This strategy of spending recklessly while
failing to tax to pay for it has allowed Republicans to dominate the
national agenda for a generation, even when their party appears to be
out of power.
The next President Clinton or President Obama, may be able to do little more than pay Dubya’s bills. Let’s hope not.