Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Being Things and Doing Things

Nearly a century ago, Booth Tarkington wrote a series of novels known as the "Growth" trilogy.

It followed a fictional prominent family, the Ambersons, and its prestige and influence in a fictional Midwestern city from the end of the Civil War to the early years of the 20th century — during which time the aristocratic Ambersons' fortunes declined while industrialists thrived.

These industrialists, the novels suggested, did not inherit their power along with their family names, as the Ambersons and other families of the 19th century did. Instead, they acquired their power by "doing things," signaling a great shift in American life.

The middle novel of the trilogy, "The Magnificent Ambersons," won a Pulitzer Prize for Tarkington and served as the basis for Orson Welles' film version.

Although it tells a story of a different time, I think it is a cautionary tale for the Democrats of the early 21st century.

And perhaps the lesson to be learned is summed up best by a line from an Amberson acquaintance. Bewildered by the way things were changing, the unnamed acquaintance said, "Don't you think being things is rather better than doing things?"

That is the sense I am getting from some Democrats these days. It is not so much that they are satisfied to be things. It is more what they claim not to be — Republicans, George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, conservatives, racists, sexists.

It is good that Democrats are none of those things, but perhaps, after resounding victories in 2006 and 2008, many Democrats have become complacent, convinced that merely being Democrats will be enough for them to prevail in a post–Bush, "post–racial" America.

I've heard a lot of talk from Democrats. When asked when the unemployment rate is going to turn around, their response is not what they are doing to encourage job creation but a reliance on "Well, Bush started it."

That is true. But it is also true that Bush is no longer president. The American people voted for a change, and they expect results. And, while many Americans seem prepared to be patient right now, as Barack Obama has urged, how long will that last? Many people are running out of patience along with their unemployment benefits.

Part of that high expectation came from Obama's pledge during the campaign to offer a tax credit for companies that create jobs. At the time, he certainly sounded like he was making job creation a priority.

"We've already lost three–quarters of a million jobs this year, and some experts say that unemployment may rise to 8% [note: it is now 9.5% and may be higher when the next jobless report comes out on Friday] by the end of next year," Obama told an audience in Ohio last October. "We can't wait until then to start creating new jobs. That's why I'm proposing to give our businesses a new American jobs tax credit for each new employee they hire here in the United States over the next two years."

But that was not part of the stimulus package Democrats pushed through in February, and now labels it a broken promise.

I don't know how many such broken promises American voters will be willing to accept between now and the midterm elections next year. But polls suggest that voter frustration may well be seen in the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey that will be decided in a few months.

And this week, Stuart Rothenberg asserted, in a column he wrote for Roll Call, that, looking ahead to 2010, "Democrats no longer have the momentum they once possessed. Even more important, signs of some Democratic vulnerability have appeared, giving the National Republican Senatorial Committee opportunities to shoot at, rather than forcing it to play an entirely defensive game, as it has the past two cycles."

Remember the last "jobless" recovery? It was brought on by the recession that occurred when Bush's father was president. Bill Clinton was elected to deal with it, but his unsuccessful emphasis on health care reform helped Republicans claim control of Congress in 1994.

And in 1982, only two years after defeating President Carter during what was then the worst recession since World War II, Ronald Reagan implored voters to "stay the course" but lost more than two dozen House seats as bumper stickers reading "It's getting harder and harder to blame Carter" began popping up.

When the tide turned against the magnificent Ambersons, observers called it their "comeuppance."

Today's Democrats would be wise to remember the lessons of 1994 and 1982 because history does have a way of repeating itself.

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