National Greatness Liberalism (II)

Bidding adieu to Mark Penn, Mark Schmitt looks back on Penn's finest hour - the '96 race against Bob Dole:

While it was a success for the Clinton family, it was a dreary low point for the nation's politics: Voter turnout dipped below 50 percent for the only time ever in a presidential year, young people were completely disengaged, campaign finance scandals arose in part because politics was so uninspiring that no one would give except in exchange for favors, and the ambitions of the early Clinton years were abandoned for safe, symbolic gestures appealing to the middle-class swing voters -- "soccer moms" -- in a few swing states.

Now of course Mark is right about the narrow point - '96 was a dull election - and he's right about his piece's larger point as well, which is that Penn seemed unable to adjust a strategy that worked well at a time of political disengagement to our own more interesting times. So why did this passage rankle me a little? I suppose it's the implication that we should judge the health of our political system by how inspirational Washington is to the average voter, rather than by the state of the country it presides over. I would happily trade all the political idealism and high voter turnout in the world to be out of Iraq and on the cusp of an economic boom, as we were during the Dole-Clinton race. Put that way, I suspect that Mark would make the trade as well, but I detect in his post a note that an awful lot of progressives are striking nowadays, which takes the failure of George W. Bush's grand projects (democracy in the Middle East, permanent GOP dominance at home, etc.) not as an opportunity to contemplate the dangers of hubris, but as a fabulous chance to harness the voter engagement and sense of crisis created by the Bush era and kick off grand projects of their own. I don't blame them, exactly: After all, harnessing a "politics of emergency" to their own ends has worked out pretty well for the Left in the past. But I don't much like it either.