Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


America's path to success

By Paul C. Light / September 10, 2002



WASHINGTON

Americans have good reason to wonder whether the federal government will ever win the war on terrorism.

Skip to next paragraph

A year into Washington's most challenging endeavor of the new century, the nation is still highly vulnerable. The more Americans pay attention to the news, the less secure they feel.

Yet those who believe we will fail are misreading history. The war on terrorism is hardly the first tough problem Washington has faced. Nor is it the first time the public has wondered whether the government would get it right.

No one knew for sure, for example, whether the federal government could overcome the persistent racial discrimination that plagued the South, but that is exactly what the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, and a host of other statutes finally did. No one knew for sure whether the federal government could eradicate life-threatening diseases while pushing the human life span past once unimaginable limits, but that is exactly what the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control, and a host of other agencies have done. And no one knew at the start whether the US would ever succeed in winning the cold war, but the Berlin Wall eventually fell.

There were plenty of false starts along the way to success in each of these great endeavors, and plenty of available excuses for failure, including failed missions on the way to the moon and a governor in the schoolhouse door on the way to integration.

But if assassinations, urban riots, political scandals, oil embargoes, stock-market crashes, and presidential impeachment were not enough to prevent progress on these extraordinary endeavors in the past, it is hard to imagine how a few months of partisan bickering or economic unrest will unsettle the effort to defeat terrorism.

To the extent a nation's greatness is measured by what its government has accomplished through good times and bad, Americans can have great confidence that Washington will succeed in both winning the war on terrorism abroad and in rebuilding a sense of security at home.

Still, not all great federal endeavors have succeeded. Washington has not provided healthcare access to all Americans. Nor has it solved urban poverty, drug abuse, energy dependence, or homelessness. Moreover, some of its greatest achievements, such as expanding the right to vote and protecting financial markets, are in jeopardy.

History suggests at least five factors that distinguish eventual success from failure. First, patience is a virtue. Europe was not rebuilt in a day. Except for the Gulf War, which lasted less than nine months, none of the federal government's greatest endeavors of the past 50 years succeeded in its first year.

Second, the federal government's greatest achievements have involved audacious goals that appear well beyond the zone of the possible. President Kennedy did not have to set a deadline for sending a man to the moon, but doing so focused national attention. President Clinton did not have to ask for an end to welfare as we know it, either, but doing so created pressure on Congress to dare just that.

Third, Washington does best when both parties and the legislative and executive branches are united in the task. The vast majority of the government's greatest achievements involve steady progress over time, across administrations, and between Democrats and Republicans. Thus, most of the great environmental statutes of the past 50 years were passed by Democratic congresses and signed into law by Republican presidents. Presidents rarely go it alone.

Finally, and perhaps most important, there are few silver bullets. The government rarely defeats an adversary such as poverty, hunger, discrimination, or disease with a single great statute such as Medicare or the Civil Rights Act. Rather, it tends to wear its enemies down, statute by statute, until it succeeds. Thus was the nation's highway system built, nutrition improved, the air and water cleaned, and workplace safety enhanced.

This is not to argue that we can succeed only with unanimity on every choice. To the contrary, the history of government's greatest endeavors contains more than its share of vetoes, filibusters, stalemates, and delays.

But there is a time for disagreement and a time for compromise. To the extent this president and this Congress wish to make the war on terrorism and homeland security among government's greatest achievements of the next 50 years, they should remember that success is earned one step at a time, more through consensus than conflict.

• Paul C. Light is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of 'Government's Greatest Achievements' (Brookings Press, 2002).

Permissions