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U.S. Still Great, Even as Democrats Act Small By: Kevin A. Hassett
Bloomberg.com | Tuesday, July 31, 2007

We found out Friday that the U.S. economy grew 3.4 percent in the second quarter. For macroeconomists, the number is a familiar one. The average annual rate of real growth in the U.S. gross domestic product from 1948 to the present was about 3.4 percent.

The U.S. is indisputably a great and thriving nation. The economy right now is about the same that it has always been, delivering growth and general well-being that is unrivaled in world history. And yet, judging by the mood of the country, Americans seem close to despair. Why?

Some say the problem is that the benefits of growth go only to the rich, but this argument rests on spurious data. The best measure of the people's welfare, consumption, suggests the middle class is doing just fine economically. Iraq has certainly dimmed the country's mood, but one senses the feeling will remain negative long after the war is behind us.

Americans know in their hearts what they yearn for. At some point, some successful candidate will read Tocqueville, and offer it to them.

The best explanation for this disconnect is that our government is failing us. Year after year, no progress is made on the big problems facing the country.

When you form an opinion about a country, you can't help but heavily weigh its leaders. Just as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sours us on Iran, our political parties sour us on America. Our country may be great, and our challenges may be as well, but our leaders are not.

"Wretched Sight"

This is hardly new. Alexis de Tocqueville noticed a similar problem in America in 1831. In a passage called "On Great and Small Parties," he wrote, as if about today, that "America has had great parties, but they exist no longer." He continued: "I cannot conceive a more wretched sight in the world than that presented by different coteries (they do not deserve the name of parties) which now divide the Union." It is, he said, "a shame to see what coarse insults, what petty slanders and what impudent calumnies fill the papers that serve as their mouthpieces."

If you want a wretched sight, look at the political speech of the leading Democratic candidates. President George W. Bush has, to put it lightly, made numerous mistakes. But he isn't Satan. You would hardly know it if you listen to the Democrats.

This is what Hillary Clinton had to say about Bush's performance: "It is a stunning record of cronyism and corruption, incompetence and deception."

Referring to Bush's commutation of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's jail time, Barack Obama said: "This decision to commute the sentence of a man who compromised our national security cements the legacy of an administration characterized by a politics of cynicism and division, one that has consistently placed itself and its ideology above the law."

No Criminal

Both candidates, it seems, are accusing Bush of being a criminal.

He isn't, if you listen to the Democrats, simply a criminal, but an evil one. Joe Trippi, a senior adviser to the campaign of John Edwards, issued an e-mail stating flatly that "George Bush doesn't care about poor people." Al Gore adds that Bush uses "the language and politics of fear" to try to "drive the public agenda without regard to the evidence, the facts or the public interest."

This language, which focuses on demonization rather than ideas, marks the Democrats as, what Tocqueville called, a "little" political party. "Great parties overturn society, the little ones pester more than they disturb it; the first often make one pity humanity, the second despise it."

"Unashamed Disregard"

All this would perhaps be a minor nuisance if some other party of greatness emerged, but Republicans have hardly been better. Did you find the impeachment of Bill Clinton distasteful? It had precedents. The parties of the early 1800s astonished Tocqueville "with what unashamed disregard of all the social decencies they daily arraign before the tribunal of public opinion, the honor of families and the secrets of the domestic hearth."

Our politicians mischaracterize their opponents' motivations and focus on their personal failings, because they themselves have given up the quest for greatness. They have been honed into cynical creatures by the sharp blades of their own parties. Their failings reflect on us all, turning Americans into an unhappy bunch, even in the face of prosperity.

It's ironic that Tocqueville's observations only slightly predated the age of Abraham Lincoln. The times, or the people, can quickly demand a leader worthy of the country. Our mood may be dark, but that very darkness creates a demand for the remedy.

Americans know in their hearts what they yearn for. At some point, some successful candidate will read Tocqueville, and offer it to them.

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