POLITICS IN AMERICA
SEPTEMBER 4, 1995
David Gergen, editor-at-large at "U.S. News & World Report," speaks with Michael Barone, senior editor at "U.S. News & World Report,"about the national debate over public policy. For 14 years, Barone has edited The Almanac of American Politics, considered by many to be the definitive guide to national politics.
MR. GERGEN: It's interesting to me that in your new Almanac of American Politics, which looks at all the details, you really write about 1994 in historical terms. You obviously think it has sweeping significance.
MICHAEL BARONE: Well, one of the things that I think we're going through in this period is a kind of decentralization of America. We're moving back, as it were, to the sort of America that elects, as de Tocqueville described in Democracy in America in the 1830's, a decentralized religious property-loving country, segmented into different parts of the country. We're used to this sort of unified America that we got in World War II, big government, big business, big labor. Those institutions are breaking down. Power is dispersing outwards. The presidency is less important now that the Cold War is over, and the Republicans, who are more of the decentralizing party in this era, seem to be more in line with public opinion than the Democrats.
MR. GERGEN: So the one clear lesson you draw out of 1994 was if we know anything about what we're heading-we're not heading left, we're not heading toward bigger government.
MICHAEL BARONE: We're not heading toward bigger government. We may be heading right towards lesser government, and we may be heading towards more dispersed government and things. I mean, one of the things that happened in 1994, the rejection by the political process of the Clinton health care plan, when there was still a Democratic Congress, as you remember, David, but one of the things that told us is that, in effect, this society was saying, let us keep these difficult decisions about medical care local, let us keep them-let us handle them out here. We'll do one financing system in Hawaii, another in Chicago, another in North Carolina, and we'll try and cope with these difficult questions, rather than having one person, one agency settle it in Washington, one solution for all.
MR. GERGEN: But aren't there some serious differences between the modern America of the 1990's and say the America of Alexis de Tocqueville? For example, Tocqueville, when he was here, not only wrote about a decentralized America, but he also wrote about an America in which neighbors help neighbors, in which there was community spirit, and as we dismantle some of the federal establishment, where do we find that old spirit of community? I mean, you don't address that in your piece, and I was curious about that.
MICHAEL BARONE: Well, I think it's an open question, whether we will find that spirit of community, and to some extent, we in Washington may be the last people to really know, because there are, you know, a thousand points of light, thousands of answers out there going on. I-you know-it's interesting to me that people on the right, like Speaker Newt Gingrich, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, have both been making the point over and over again, look, if we're going to dismantle this government, you people out there are going to have to do more to help people who have problems, do it in your community. I'm not sure whether that's going to really reach a clarion call or not. We've got people-you know-Americans work hard. The women in the house, as well as the men in the house, work outside the home. They come back; they're exhausted; they have very little family time. Will we find the willingness to do this or not? Open question. I think one of the things that may provide more neighbors helping neighbors is the fact that we have to a considerable extent a religious right, rather than a secular right. Now, a lot of my friends in the Washington press think this is terrible, they're going to be persecuted, they're going to be put up on stakes or something like that. That's not-that kind of thing is not going to happen in America. But I think what might happen if religious people take the religious-religion seriously, including obligations to others, to community, and the fact that they feel accountable to a higher authority, that often does result in community action, in group association of the sort that Tocqueville talked about, and of helping others in need.
MR. GERGEN: I, I think I share your view that Washington has always had a condescending attitude, almost a sneering attitude toward the Christian right, and that if people better understood many of the citizens on the Christian right, we'd have a healthier country.
MICHAEL BARONE: Well, one of the exercises I think we should all put ourselves into is try and get into the heads of somebody who's in a very different place on the political spectrum from yourself and imagine what they really believe. Just spend five minutes doing that.
MR. GERGEN: Or how they live, and what kind of income they have.
MICHAEL BARONE: And how they change.
MR. GERGEN: Right. But let me come to another one of your propositions, and that is, that with the end of the Cold War, that the presidency is going to be a diminished institution and that, in fact, where we're turning to the national-natural constitutional order.
MICHAEL BARONE: Well, we are literally to the constitutional order. The Constitution, Article I, is not about the President. It's about Congress. And it doesn't treat with the Senate first, even though the Sunday interview shows usually have Senators on them. It starts with the House of Representatives, with the institution that the founders expected would be closest to the people, closest in time, closest in representation. And, you know, when you read Article II, the President article, the duties in many ways are almost sort of ministerial. The one thing that really is important in the President's power is the fact that the President is commander-in- chief, but that only applies in time of war, and I think what's happened is that the presidency is less important than it was during World War II, the Cold War period, when the President could blow up the Earth.
MR. GERGEN: But is that a desirable state of things? I agree with you that the House of Representatives mentioned first in Article I is now the driving force behind certainly the national political agenda, but is that the way we ought to have this? For example, if you look back in the late 19th century, as you know so well, when the Congress was, in effect, running things, it didn't run it very well. It had a hard time leading.
MICHAEL BARONE: Well, one of the problems-a Tocquevillian America, if you will, an America decentralized as Tocqueville described it in the 1830's, has a couple of potential problems. One of them is flying apart, splitting apart and fighting a war, the Civil War that we had in, in the 1860's. Now, I don't think the fight between what I call the feminist left and the religious right is going to go into overt war, but you do have things like the killing of the abortionists, you do have things-the shouting down of right wing people in the campuses and so forth-that are not entirely comforting aspects of life in America-the hint of violence there that's not good. The other danger, I think, is the danger of sort of hedonism. In a fragmented country, you're left free to seek pleasure of what you want. What are your obligations to the whole polity of something? And I think that that's something everybody in the political spectrum, left, right, and center, needs to think creatively about, and that none of them have really done enough to nurture that sense.
MR. GERGEN: I would agree with that, but is the presidency not the institution that's better suited to focus people's attentions, to focus people's energies on issues like that, rather than the House of Representatives? Newt Gingrich is-has become an extraordinarily powerful force in our society, but I think that probably in his heart of hearts, Newt Gingrich would rather be president than be speaker.
MICHAEL BARONE: Well, I guess he would rather be president than speaker. Even Henry Clay, the long-running speaker in the 19th century ran for President three times, and would have accepted the offers on other occasions had it been proffered to him. The presidency is-does remain a bully pulpit. I mean, you know, Theodore Roosevelt was speaking-used that phrase in an America which was not at war and which power was not as centralized as it was today, though it was moving in that direction.
MR. GERGEN: Yeah. In fact, the rise of the presidency came before the First World War, with Teddy Roosevelt.
MICHAEL BARONE: With Teddy Roosevelt, during that period when we were moving towards centralization. I think it takes a President who has a certain command, a certain fluency, an eloquence which President Clinton has, and also a certain moral authority, which I think he is lacking for many voters in America today, for many people, and that's a problem in his administration.
MR. GERGEN: Yeah. You said, interestingly enough, you thought that his power of speech was his strongest power, but he'd been, in effect, disarmed.
MICHAEL BARONE: Well, he's discounted his own currency, in effect. I mean, the fact is that the President is a wonderful speaker. His best medium-in a way he's an 18th century politician-his best medium is in the room with you, David. You've been in the room with him more often than I have. I have been also. And, of course, he's tremendously-he senses what others want to hear. He understands their position. He has a feel for where different Americans come from, which is a very good quality in a politician. His obverse seems to be that then he seems to just want to tell them what they want to hear and not resolve the contradictions. He doesn't seem to have a steady compass, and he has, you know, often misspoken or said things that he ought not to, you know, lies or things that have not been able to be substantiated, changing his mind on issues. That's cost him some moral authority, and so I think-and a lot of Americans who see him on the screen anymore, they just push that clicker and the mute button, and tune him out, and I think that's unfortunate, because at least some of the things, even from a non-partisan perspective, that he has to say are very much worth hearing.
MR. GERGEN: A final question. When you come to write the American Almanac two years from now, how are you likely to look back upon 1996?
MICHAEL BARONE: Well, I think-I'm not sure how I'm going to look back on 1996. I think that one of the things I try and cultivate now is, is a sense of contingency, the fact that we don't know what's coming next, that sense that's so hard to get yourself back in the heads of people who saw the Battle of Waterloo and didn't know what was coming next, or saw, you know Appomattox Courthouse and didn't know what was coming next. I think a lot of possibilities are open for 1996. I think there's great fluidity out there, and while one outcome is President Dole, another outcome is President Clinton, I think there is very serious chances of a whole bunch of other things, including independent-successful independent candidacies.
MR. GERGEN: Colin Powell?
MICHAEL BARONE: Colin Powell I think is a person who could be elected President.
MR. GERGEN: You do?
MICHAEL BARONE: Yes.
MR. GERGEN: As a third party candidate?
MICHAEL BARONE: As a third party candidate or as a Republican, should he get the Republican nomination.
MR. GERGEN: That would require Dole to falter.
MICHAEL BARONE: Yes. I mean, it would require a series of contingencies-presumably Dole to falter in some way, or to be judged not up to it. It would also require Gen. Powell to get the nomination over the opposition probably of the religious right or with the suspicion which is the driving force in the party. It's as if somebody wins the Democratic nomination over the opposition of the feminist left. It's not likely, but Powell is a man of considerable size and magnitude in our country at this point now. He has the sort of moral authority. He is a person who can claim to have reformed a major public institution, the U.S. military, to have played an important part in changing it from a military that wasn't working very well to a military that worked superbly when they were needed and which everyone saw.
MR. GERGEN: Well, we'll look forward to the next Almanac.
MR. LEHRER: David Gergen will have another engagement next week with someone whose writing is drawing special attention.