Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Stormy Present

"The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present."

Abraham Lincoln

In Massachusetts, voting has begun. Democrats and Republicans will be choosing their candidates today to run in a six–week general election campaign (along with an independent) to fill the U.S. Senate seat that was vacated by the death of Edward M. Kennedy in August.

Taking this step toward choosing the successor to a man who spent nearly half a century in the Senate seems like kind of a strange — and yet appropriate — way to bring this decade to an end.

I remember, as if it were yesterday, something I said to a co–worker more than nine years ago, when the Bush and Gore campaigns were locked in their legal battle over the state of Florida — that the eventual winner of the election might regret being the winner. At the time, I was thinking of the narrow congressional divisions, but, in hindsight, I may have been right for reasons I didn't consider.

Whether I expressed that thought verbally or not, it is one I have had before, usually following presidential elections. In fact, I had that thought last year, even though Barack Obama's victory was being hailed by friend and foe alike, and his party had achieved large congressional majorities. I remember wondering, on Election Night 2008, how Obama was going to achieve the delicate balancing act that would be necessary to revive the economy, put millions of Americans back to work and successfully end two wars while not alienating any of his supporters — or further alienating his detractors.

The answer was simple. "The stormy present," as Lincoln called it, was too stormy. It couldn't be done.

Or could it?

We are now a week removed from the president's address at West Point, in which he announced plans to escalate U.S. troop involvement in Afghanistan, and we're starting to see the first results of polls on that decision. Quinnipiac reports that "[p]ublic support for the war in Afghanistan is up nine percentage points in the last three weeks, as American voters say 57–35 percent that fighting the war is the right thing to do."

Quinnipiac also reports that approval of Obama's handling of the war is up, and three–fifths of respondents support his plan to begin withdrawing troops in 2011, although a plurality believe Obama won't be able to keep that pledge.

On the other hand ...

Poll respondents also are skeptical — by a wide margin — about whether Obama deserves the Nobel Peace Prize he will receive this week. Perhaps that is because it is hard to reconcile the notion of a Nobel Peace Prize winner escalating a war.

Kennedy's successor — whoever he or she may be — will be confronted with the problems posed by the stormy present. No doubt there will be those among the new senator's constituents who will long for the seasoned leadership Kennedy could provide.

But that is not an option.

The option — aside from the one the voters have in choosing the nominees — belonged to those who decided to seek the Senate seat.

We won't know until Jan. 19, 2010, which one the voters will choose to serve the remainder of Kennedy's term.

And I have to wonder if the eventual winner might wish he/she hadn't won.

Which reminds me of another Lincoln quote, which may prove to be more appropriate than any of the candidates in today's primaries would care to admit:

"If it weren't for the honor of the thing," Lincoln said, citing a man who was tarred, feathered and ridden out of town on a rail, "I'd rather walk."

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