The news that Herman Cain is suspending his presidential campaign was no surprise by the time it was made; it had been clear for sometime that his presidential bid had been hit below the waterline. One hopes that he and his family will have some peace and quiet in which to come to terms with the events of the last few weeks, and Via Meadia wishes them the best.
The restlessness in the Republican electorate has been remarkable this cycle. One after another, the voters have looked at some flashy political figures, toyed with them, and set them back down on the shelf. It is just as well; the American primary process is too expensive, too long, too full of malarky — but it does allow voters to size up the candidates, and their verdicts seem generally sound. Donald Trump and Sarah Palin tested the waters and decided not to jump in; Rick Perry, Michelle Bachman and Herman Cain all intrigued voters for a while, but none of them strike Via Meadia as ready for the big job. In Donald Trump’s case, it is difficult to think what job he is ready for, but de mortuis nil nisi bonum, and politically at least Mr. Trump has passed on.
Given the breadth and depth of the opposition to President Obama, and the number of people who have served or currently serve in state and federal posts, it is surprising that a stronger field of opponents has not appeared. A much smaller republic was able to field candidates like Daniel Webster and Henry Clay; the three way contest between William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in 1912 would be hard to replicate today: Gingrich, Obama and Bloomberg?
The problem is not a decline in our gene pool. It is that our economy and our society have outrun our political ideas. The Democrats stand mostly for defense of an order that is passing away. They seem to have no idea how to do anything other than try to slow the decline of the blue social model; this is a party that has been out of ideas since the 1970s. Republicans seem mostly divided between those who hearken back to the pre-progressive 19th century past and others who know change is needed but are less sure about what to do. How much of the progressive state must, can or should we carry into the future? What if anything do we put in its place? How do we deal with an entitlement crisis that will burst upon us sooner than we had hoped? How do we rethink our educational, health and legal/governmental systems so that we can get more done with less friction and less economic cost?
The Great Recession has exposed the strains in many of our systems — including the systems that regulate and organize the financial markets — and we are having to address complicated and difficult issues on an accelerated timetable at a time of economic hardship and straitened budgets. In the current version of the GOP race, Newt Gingrich, a font of often interesting but sometimes inconsistent or rash ideas, confronts Mitt Romney, a man who offers skilled management but seems to have little idea about where he wants to steer the ship of state. What many voters and perhaps the country long for is a single candidate who synthesizes the two: a coherent and innovative approach to the big questions of the day combined with a steady pair of experienced hands.
The reason no such candidate has appeared is that our national discussion about life after blue remains thin. The transition from an economy based on industrial mass production and mass consumption and fueled by credit and debt (before the Depression, Americans rarely went into debt except to buy a house or start a business) raises a range of complicated questions. The financial stress of the demographic transition, in which entitlement programs that assumed relatively short lives past 65 combined with continued rapid population growth from generation to generation must adjust to very different conditions, makes things harder. The cost squeeze as poor productivity and perverse incentives drive costs up in key sectors like medicine, education and government even as society’s need for these services increases adds a yet another dimension to our woes. The ideological hegemony of 20th century progressive thought among so many intellectuals and professionals (not to mention their economic and political interest in arrangements that support their power, income and prestige) make too many intellectual and professional people knee-jerk defenders of the status quo rather than innovators and experimenters, slowing down the process of social reflection and change.
Finally, rapid changes in the real economy (rise of Asia, commoditization of manufacturing) combine with the enormous expansion in the complexity, volume and global integration of financial markets to create new economic forces that are difficult for both regulators and market participants to understand.
None of these problems are purely American; the global system is being stressed and reshaped as these problems and others roil the waters worldwide. Global problems like the European financial crisis reflect the power of these forces overseas; they also exacerbate America’s problems.
Put all this together and it is less than surprising that so many ambitious presidential wannabes seem smaller than the job.
The problems facing the world and the country are by no means insoluble, and the United States is actually far better situated than other leading societies to find its way forward. Historically, the capacity for social innovation and adjustment is America’s greatest strength and there are plenty of signs that we have not lost this capacity today.
But for now, an old way of living doesn’t work any longer, and we don’t yet know what the new system will look like. It is not surprising under the circumstances that our politics are polarized and our leaders seem small.