My Decade of Loss

Looking back at a significant period of time - a century, a decade - the tendency is to get all Olympian about it, gazing down majestically from the clouds and assessing change, growth, loss -- or if you're of a more sociological bent, trends - with an all-capital-letters kind of PERSPECTIVE.  This is why we label passages of time with such names as "The Era of Good Feelings", usually misconstrued by subsequent generations but helpful to textbook writers in providing convenient chapter headings.   The passage of time often brings great change, of course, on scales large and small, change that affects us collectively, both emotionally (the attacks of September 11, 2001) and corporeally (we undress at airports and buy "green" non-plastic bags in which to tote groceries from the checkout counter to the kitchen).

But the passage of time is not merely a collective experience; it is personal as well.  One makes New Year's Resolutions not to adapt to a changing world but to reflect on how our individual lives have changed, or failed to change, in a positive direction.  We write in diaries not of revolutionary cycles in Tehran but of our weight gains, our evolving relationships, our gains or losses on the job front.  The real measurement of time's effect is not merely on the community but equally, and perhaps more so, on the self.   And a part of that cold glare in the mirror is the unblinking recalibration of who we think we are and where we belong and what we think we think.

We have anchors: our personal relationships, of course, family, friends, and colleagues, but also our politics, our religious beliefs, the worldview we carry with us and that gives us a sense of knowing where we fit on the various graphs and pie charts by which we are measured.  When a decade unravels that sense of knowing in which hole one's peg of being belongs, it is that, not who won what election or which film drew the biggest box office that gives the decade its definition.   The years from 2000 through 2009 were my decade of loss.

On January 1, 2000, I was a conservative Republican and I knew what that term, and that party affiliation, meant, and I was comfortable in knowing that it was a shared identity.  I volunteered to help George W. Bush in his campaign for President.  I was teaching at Harvard then, but had previously been not only a member of the House Republican leadership but, in addition, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations committee's subcommittee on foreign operations.   So I was asked to draft my thoughts on how the campaign and a subsequent Bush presidency ought to look at the role of foreign assistance in the foreign policy and national security apparatus.   I had co-chaired a joint task force on just that subject for the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations, so I agreed to do it.  It was a modest contribution, but I felt part of the Bush team and in November that year, I voted for him.   No reinvention here: I did not vote for him reluctantly; I did so with some enthusiasm.  I had been close to Ronald Reagan and supported him against George W.'s father, but had later developed a good relationship with the senior Bush as well, had traveled with Jeb Bush, and although my only meeting with W (during his father's presidency) had left me decidedly unimpressed, I was pleased by his emphasis on the "compassionate" elements of the conservative's approach to politics.   So, no, I didn't hold my nose to vote for him; I was comfortable in doing so.

Four years later, I did not vote for his re-election.  I could not bring myself to vote for John Kerry, but for the first time in my memory, I went to the polls, marked ballots for candidates (mostly Republicans), and left the presidential line blank.  And four years after that, unimpressed by John McCain (I had thought him a bit of a phony when we served in the House together) and determined to repudiate the Bush presidency (guilt feelings for having supported him eight years before?), I announced to friends that I was supporting Barack Obama.

This may seem a minor thing - a good many Republicans supported Obama - but it was not a minor thing for me.  I admired Obama's "cool", his thoughtful approach, but not his politics.  I am no liberal.  I had not morphed into a lefty.  But now, having been national chairman of the American Conservative Union, chairman of the nationwide Conservative Political Action Conference, a founder of the Heritage Foundation, national vice chairman of the Young Republicans, a co-chairman of a platform subcommittee at the national convention that nominated Ronald Reagan for President, the director of the Reagan campaign's policy task forces, and a senior member of the Republican leadership in Congress, I was not merely supporting  a candidate of the other party, I was deliberately repudiating not a momentary affiliation but a lifelong allegiance.

There was a corollary: in the previous paragraph, I have conflated conservatism and the Republican Party, but they are not the same.  In fact, we conservatives had long claimed that we were Republicans only because, given the nature of our system, affiliation with a political party offered the best chance of seeing our views prevail at a national level.   Given the platforms of the two dominant parties, the GOP seemed the better option.  But during this decade now ending, I found myself repudiating the Republican Party without becoming a Democrat and, simultaneously, repudiating what the conservative movement, in which I had held numerous positions of leadership, had become.

There was a third element of loss.  When reporters for major newspapers wrote of Obama, now President, having ceded authority to the Congress to write health care legislation, I rolled my eyes.  Writing legislation, writing the nation's laws, is not a power within the purview of the presidency; it is in fact a power deliberately withheld from the presidency by a Constitution that vests most of the nation's actual governing authority in its legislature of peoples' representatives.  I served in Congress for 16 years and yet not a day passed without me getting a thrill as I drove down Independence Avenue and the Capitol dome came into sight, or again when the bells rang to signal a vote and I dashed up the stairs to the House chamber where so much of the nation's history had been written.  Democracy is about process, not outcomes, and because the Constitution sets out the process by which we are to reach our policy decisions, I have long championed the Congress as the preeminent branch of the federal government.   And yet during this past decade I have found my love for the Congress severely strained.

The Republican Party I had joined, and to which I gave so much, was a party that understood both government obligation and constitutional limitation.  It recognized the United States as a nation, not a loose confederation of communities, and, at the same time, a nation committed to the idea that its component individuals were citizens, not subjects, and as much as possible, their liberties were to be preserved.  We were a nation, but a nation of free men and women - a hard balancing act to maintain, but maintaining it was central to what kind of nation we were.    Today that party has disappeared; in its place stands another entity, waving the same flag but marching to a far different drumbeat, unimpressed by constitutional constraint, promoting not liberty but orthodoxy.

The conservative movement in which I had played a leading role for two decades no longer holds itself out as separate from the party that it once saw as no more than a vehicle; as George W. Bush and congressional Republicans turned their backs on the Constitution, conservatives rallied behind them, so obsessed with holding power (though the purpose behind the quest for power had disappeared) that they defended, repeatedly, the indefensible.

The Congress itself, caught up in a Gingrich-style politics of perpetual partisan warfare, turned its back on the apparently quaint idea that the peoples' representatives ought to put their best efforts into evaluating policy proposals; instead, what mattered was team solidarity; Republicans, almost without exception, stood for A; Democrats, in lockstep, insisted on B.  Over and over, the hard divisions and near-unanimity made it clear that there was very little individual thought going on and the idea of a Congress of "peoples' representatives" was revealed as a charade; now nothing mattered but a battle for partisan advantage.

At the beginning of the decade I was part of a party, and a political movement, whose views I shared; ten years have passed and both the party and the movement have rejected every basic principle that once animated them.  Ten years ago, I championed a political system of vigorous debate, including fierce struggle within the parties; today, James Madison's ghost has seen his greatest fears realized; rather than shifting factions, we have permanent factions, private clubs in a non-stop partisan battle for power that has supplanted individual thought.   The Congress has been caught in the undertow and it is diminished.

Much has changed in the past decade, from the increased danger of international terrorism to the increased danger posed by idiots texting while driving to the mind-blowing silliness of adults spending hours telling "friends" (by the hundreds) what they ate for lunch or saw at the movies.  But the change that has affected me most is the sense that the world of politics I belonged to ten years ago has disappeared; the political party whose identity I shared has gone the way of the Whigs, with nothing but the name itself remaining.  The political movement I helped to develop has repudiated its most basic principles, abandoned its purpose, become the embodiment of the very things it once so vigorously opposed.

I am a political person; Bernard Crick wrote in his book "In Defence of Politics" that "politics is the way a free people govern themselves."    But when the rug on which a political person has stood for decades is yanked out from under him, when his political home has been torn down by those who once claimed to live in it and who have now replaced it with a cardboard cutout as ersatz as a Hollywood set, it has been a disaster of a decade no matter what else might have happened along the way.