American politics: `a war of ideas'. To fail is not always to lose

FAILURE in politics is not just common; it is necessary. After the last election, which featured about as many negative ads as the one before that and the one before that, many commentators lamented the campaign's disagreeable tone and the candidates' inability to say anything nice about each other. But elections are zero-sum games. Every candidate wants all his opponents - primary and general - to lose. There is little occasion, therefore, for candidates to work toward a consensus on the issues. In electoral politics, John Kenneth Galbraith's - or was it Gore Vidal's - aphorism is a tautology: ``It is not enough for one to succeed. Others must fail.'' But failure usually isn't permanent - and sometimes isn't failure. Abraham Lincoln lost a Senate election in 1858, Franklin Roosevelt in 1914, Lyndon Johnson in 1941. But they did pretty well after that. Barry Goldwater and George McGovern were landslide losers in presidential elections, the only major party nominees since Alf Landon to fail to get even 40 percent of the vote. But did they fail in all their objectives? Goldwater had the satisfaction of seeing Republicans who were widely regarded as conservative win four of the next five presidential elections and of seeing the nation reject important parts of his opponent Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. McGovern had the satisfaction of watching his views about United States involvement in Vietnam become almost universally accepted. He also saw his positions on what Hugh Scott labeled ``acid, amnesty, and abortion'' become established public policy, even before Richard Nixon was forced out of office. THE important kind of political failure - and success - it seems to me consists not of winning the battles that are elections, but of winning victories in the war of ideas. Success is winning victories that persuade others your ideas are right. Failure is losing those battles, which proves your ideas are losers. Success means you are contributing to history books of the future. Failure is missing the opportunity to contribute to them. It means your ideas end up in the footnotes - or are not mentioned.

By this definition, the greatest successes in American politics are the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The failures include Thomas Hutchinson (the Tory governor of Massachusetts), Patrick Henry (vitriolic opponent of the Constitution), Stephen A. Douglas and Jefferson Davis, Woodrow Wilson, Robert Taft, and Richard Nixon. The most interesting question about US politics of the 1980s is whether Ronald Reagan's name will appear on one of these lists - and if so, which one.

The successes here are reasonably obvious. The history of the Revolution is still written pretty much as the Founding Fathers would have liked, as the waning interest in the Beards' debunking economic explanations for the Constitution testifies. The history of the Civil War is still written pretty much as Lincoln would set it down. The history of the New Deal and Second World War periods are still written almost exactly as Franklin Roosevelt desired and expected them to be; the intellectual right, which has been so busy revising our view of almost everything else, seems to have left the years 1929-1945 almost completely alone. It is still awfully hard to argue, as Roosevelt's adversaries did, that laissez faire was a good policy for depression or that Hitler wasn't a threat to America abroad.

As for the failures, who remembers Robert Taft's warnings about the excesses of the New Deal or can recite his case against American involvement in European wars? Once, these views mobilized near-majorities of American voters. Now they are as obscure as Woodrow Wilson's arguments for the League of Nations were in Taft's time. Or think of Richard Nixon. During his career, he championed the causes of anti-communism, fiscal austerity, and traditional values. Yet his presidency saw the recognition of Communist China and d'etente with Russia, huge run-ups in domestic spending combined with cuts in defense, and the de facto legalization of marijuana, abortion, pornography, and prostitution. The final irony of course was Watergate: the champion of morality as a crook.

The saddest failures in American politics are those who run for office thinking they are the wave of the future but whose defeats prove conclusively that their views are a thing of the past.

Thomas E. Dewey is probably remembered as the political failure of 1948, but he had the satisfaction of seeing a Dewey-like Republican win four and eight years later. Much more conclusive was the defeat of Henry Wallace. At the beginning of 1948, Wallace saw himself, not Harry Truman, as the rightful heir of Franklin Roosevelt, favoring more government intervention in the economy at home and a friendlier policy toward the Soviets abroad. In a year when almost everyone expected Dewey to win, Wallace ran to prove there was a vital Left in American politics, and that without his Progressive constituency the Democrats could not win. Well, Truman beat Dewey 50-45 percent while Wallace got 2 percent. Little has been heard since in American politics about national planning, and even less about the idea that all we need to do to get along with the Russians is to let them have whatever they want.

And what about Ronald Reagan? After the first five years and ten months of his presidency, he seemed to have done more to write the history of his times than any president since Franklin Roosevelt. He had redefined political success: it meant cutting taxes and holding down the size of government rather than enacting new government programs, it meant asserting our will and winning at least minor victories against the Soviets and their allies rather than getting them to agree to disarmament treaties and d'etente. In Washington, predictions were confidently made that Reagan would push for a SALT-style disarmament treaty and a civil rights or antipoverty program out of a conern for his place in history. But Reagan seemed to go blithely along his own path, confident that the history books would be written his way. NOW the revelations about arms sales to Iran and transfers of the proceeds to the Nicaraguan contras suggest that Reagan is less surefooted than it appeared. His critics are crowing that these incidents reveal him as a failure and a fraud. A better interpretation is that he, like other presidents (remember Roosevelt on court packing or gold buying?), is capable of bad political judgment on occasions: no politician is a total success or total failure.

There has been a comforting symmetry and regularity to American history, with elections recurring regularly every two, four, and six years, with great leaders arising in time of need, with the poetic and tragic death of two great war presidents just as they led the nation to victory. Our system worked. Then confidence in it was undermined as a young president was killed, another got us mired in an unwanted war, and a third proved to be a liar. The system was failing. Reagan for a time at least seemed to return reliability to American politics, doing pretty much what he said he'd do and having it turn out well. Now, on Iran, he's done just the opposite of what he said and we thought he'd do, and it doesn't seem to be turning out so well. We can be pretty sure the policy will be regarded as a failure. We can only wonder whether that judgment will carry over to the Reagan presidency and to the political system itself.

Michael Barone is co-editor of the Almanac of American Politics. This article was adapted from the January-February issue of Public Opinion magazine.

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