Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Fading Dream by Bob Herbert














November 13, 2006
Op-Ed Columnist

“America moved me all over again — it was an amazing place, the idea of it astounding.”

—Arthur Miller

Rumsfeld is exiting stage left and the curtain is coming down on George W. Bush’s Theater of the Absurd. A rival company is setting up shop and expectations are high.

O.K., Democrats. Now what? Inquiring minds want to know if the new troupe will make us laugh, cheer, or cry.

First, let’s stipulate that there are limits to what the party can achieve in the next two years, even with control of both houses of Congress. But the two most important tasks facing the Democrats are doable. The first is to ensure that Congress fulfills its constitutional obligation to impose a check on the excesses of the executive.

The second task is to respond to the anxiety that has seeped through much of the electorate about the state of the nation. Americans are worried about the war, the political and economic situation here at home, the way the U.S. is perceived by the rest of the world, and the direction in which the country is heading.

The Democrats didn’t win the off-year elections, the Republicans lost them. And I’m convinced that the Republicans lost because while they were in charge (“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”) millions of Americans began to lose confidence in those things that had moved them about America — its awesome power to do good, its ethical underpinnings, and most important, that incredible array of qualities that fell under the magical, mystical heading, the American dream.

A real-life metaphor for what has happened to America occurred last week on the west side of Manhattan. After inviting hundreds of well-wishers to watch, officials had planned to tow the aircraft carrier Intrepid from its dock to a facility on the other side of the Hudson River, where it would undergo a major overhaul. But when the time for its departure arrived, the Intrepid, which has served for years as a popular Sea, Air and Space Museum, could not be budged. It was stuck in the mud beneath the river.

The Intrepid was commissioned in 1943, when the U.S. still knew how to win wars. Its active history encompassed that extraordinary post-World War II period when bold leadership and a sense of common purpose transformed the U.S. and made it the envy of the world. That leadership and sense of common purpose has since been largely lost.

The elite now send other people’s children off to fight and die in wars that are unwinnable. On the home front, a two-tiered economy has been put in place in which a small percentage of the population does extremely well while a majority of working Americans are in an all-but-permanent state of anxiety about job security, pensions, the economic impact of globalization, the cost of health care, college tuition, and so on.

For perhaps the first time in history, there is a large swath of Americans who are worried that over the long haul their children will not fare as well as they have.

For resurgent Democrats there is no better touchstone right now than Franklin Roosevelt. He understood the corrosive effects of prolonged economic insecurity and the essential need for cooperation in the effort to build a successful society. His goal was “to make a country in which no one is left out.”

Roosevelt had both the vision and the political skills, including an indestructible sense of optimism, to galvanize the nation in some of its darkest hours. Those qualities have been in short supply among the terminally timid Democrats of recent years.

Last week, the voters gave the Democrats another opportunity to lead, not just on the war in Iraq, but on such questions as how best to deal with globalization, how to make real progress toward energy independence, and how to ensure that the economic benefits of a wealthy nation are more equitably shared.

What voters really want to know is whether the American dream will still be there for the next generation.

In Congress over the next two years, and in the presidential campaign of 2008, the Democrats will have to respond to that question with a coherent vision of the nation’s future and a cadre of leaders who, like Roosevelt, can convey that vision convincingly and optimistically.

There’s a reason why the Democratic figure generating the most excitement at the moment, Barack Obama, titled his latest book, “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.”

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