About a year and a half ago, after the issuance of the Iraqi study group report, I pronounced the political epitaph of the Silent Generation. That was, I can now see, a bit premature. That bipartisan group was composed almost entirely of members of the generation just old enough to remember V-J day, and it had produced a typical set of sensible, moderate proposals for a large-scale withdrawal from Iraq. The Bush Administration ignored it. The surge--which was intially very costly in lives and has remained very costly in money and strain on the military--has quieted things down in Iraq for the moment, but the withdrawal they called for seems clearly to be coming, and we don't know what will come next. Meanwhile, the Silents have produced a presidential candidate, John McCain, although I personally do not feel his prospects look that bright. But they have continued to exercise a considerable influence through their last bastion of authority, the Democratic leadership in the Congress. Whether that is a good thing I am not sure.
Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Charles Rangle, Barney Frank, Joe Biden, Jay Rockefeller, and the rest of the 65-and-over Democrats who now run the House and Senate have opted for the most responsible government possible. They have refused to consider the impeachment of the President or Vice President--perhaps a sensible decision given the imminence of the election, but one which nonetheless has the effect of excusing a great deal. They refused to cut off funding for the war in Iraq, postponing the day of reckoning into the next Administration. And, faced with serious domestic problems, they have often settled for the best bill they could get--which means a bill that some Republicans will support, largely out of fear of the consequences this November. Early this year they passed the stimulus package the President asked for, handing billions of dollars to Americans who really did not need them rather than combining job creation with doing something about our eroding infrastructure. Just last week, they passed a voluntary mortgage refinancing bill which, as a well-informed observer assured me on NPR, will have absolutely no effect on what is going on.
No one has been more critical of Boomer political excess than I, and my philosophy of government is probably pretty close to the leadership's in normal times--but I am not sure whether this has been a good thing or not. What is interesting is that the more accommodating spirit of the Democrats has done less than nothing--literally--to raise the esteem in which the public holds the Congress. Their ratings are at an all-time low, far lower than the PResident's. That will be a tremendous challenge for the next President: the public seems no longer to believe that legislation can really benefit it--and not without reason. The Democratic leadership hasn't staked out an alternative set of dometic policies--they have left that to the next President. In the 1930s and again in the 1950s and early 1960s the Congress was full of progressives of both parties with ambitious, specific agendas--to assure the rights of labor, to build infrastructure, to regulate markets, to provide a safety net, and to assure civil rights for black Americans. It is not clear that there is a comparable group today. Meanwhile, the cooperative spirit is not winning too many friends as we enter into a new era of crisis.
All this will put a truly gigantic burden upon Barack Obama if he is elected. He will need Congressional allies with ideals and determination to achieve anything in the areas of health care or the economy or global warming. And as the economic crisis worsens, the country will face a truly unprecedented task: climbing out of a deep recession after the de-industrialization of America, which has proceeded apace in the seven years since the last serious recession. We will indeed find ourselves in a completely new era.
Meanwhile, on another generational front, I finally got around to watching my Netflix copy of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, which had been sitting on my bureau for a couple of months. I was deeply disappointed and frankly, had to wonder how much better a Gore presidency would have turned out than a Bush one. The thrust of his presentation may well be correct, and it would in any case be a great thing to reduce fossil fuel consumption drastically, but his tone, throughout, exemplified the worst of his generation. Again and again he made clear that he was one of the only people who understood that the fate of the earth was at stake thanks to the transgressions of lesser mortals. The movie also looked suspiciously like a campaign document (although the campaign did take place), since a biography of the former Vice President was intercut with his presentation. Gore would not, I think, have gone to war in Iraq, and the country would have been in better fiscal health today, but I doubt he would have been able to accomplish too much. Meanwhile, yet another Boomer, Hillary Clinton, has made a very graceful exit from the center of affairs, and I for one would like to thank her.