I used to enjoy watching the NBC television program "The West Wing." On the whole, the program's focus was unabashedly liberal. I was always somewhere between amused and chagrined that the show's producers and writers were so convinced of their political rectitude that it rarely occurred to them to vary the ideological composition of their heroes and villains.
That said, I recall one episode that has me wishing fiction were reality. In this episode, key adviser Toby Ziegler set out on a seemingly quixotic quest to reform Social Security. I don't recall the details; perhaps Social Security was facing an immediate crisis, or perhaps he simply saw an opening nobody else did. In any event, Ziegler risked status, reputation and position to successfully broker a deal between Democrats and Republicans that restored Social Security to firm foundations by making changes that were unpopular with both parties. Each side of the aisle had to sacrifice; nobody was completely happy. But the end result was stability, and everyone in Washington could breathe a sigh of relief.
Risk. Reputation. Status. Where are we headed as a nation when the latter two occupy all the political space, leaving no room for the former? We are engaged in such a race for the lowest common denominator, more concerned with partisan jockeying than problem-solving, and re-election than restoration. The New York Times published an editorial today noting how Democrats appear reluctant to trumpet the successes they have had or to make a forthright challenge to Republicans' intransigence on fiscal questions because they are so concerned about their 2012 electoral prospects. Meanwhile, Republican candidates who once supported innovative ideas and programs, from Mitt Romney to the now-exited Tim Pawlenty, have backtracked their way into hollow support of a narrowly defined GOP orthodoxy. There is more to the Republican Party than this--or at least, there was. There was once more to Democrats, as well.
As I head for the archives this morning I find myself wishing I could crawl into the past physically as well as mentally. (Except for the garters and pantyhose part.) I hope someday we can recover the courage that brought the United States from 1776 to the present. We've made some HUGE mistakes over the past two and a half centuries. One thing that has distinguished American history, however, is that courageous people have brought us--even kicking and screaming--into a realm of greater freedoms and possibilities. Those people were Republican and Democrat. Now, however, we face increasing poverty, a growing gap between rich and poor, and politicians who can no longer hold civilized conversations. We're in a scary place. I'm deeply concerned.