Sunday, July 31, 2011

Everything Old Is New Again

"Peace is at hand."

Henry Kissinger
October 1972

A few hours ago, the president announced a tentative agreement in the debt ceiling debate.

Barack Obama told the nation that "both parties have found their way toward compromise," which will be good news, indeed — if it comes to fruition.

And that is the as–yet unanswered question. Will both sides agree to it? Or will support break down as each side has an opportunity to examine the deal more closely?

I am reminded of the day in October 1972 when, with Richard Nixon a week away from facing the voters in his bid for a second term, Henry Kissinger announced to the world that "peace is at hand" in Vietnam.

It was the original October surprise. It was what everyone wanted. And it was clearly what Nixon believed would secure a second term for him.

Based on Nixon's job approval numbers from 1972 — and the self–destructive nature of the Democratic ticket — that outcome probably was never in doubt.

But, when Nixon was at this point of his first term — July–August 1971 — his job approval numbers were about 10 percentage points lower than the share of the vote he received in November 1972. They were, essentially, at the break–even point, with roughly half of respondents approving of his performance, and much of it reflected public disappointment that Nixon's "secret plan" had failed to bring an end to the conflict in southeast Asia.

In the context of the times — and to be fair — there were, as there always are, economic issues that demanded the president's attention.

(In fact, August 15 will be the 40th anniversary of Nixon's imposition of a 90–day freeze on prices and wages following his announcement that America would no longer convert dollars to gold at a fixed rate, marking the end of the Bretton Woods financial management system.)

But those economic conditions — however severe they may have been and whatever role (if any) the actions that were taken then may have played in our current economic woes — were not the primary focus of attention.

Even Nixon's supporters probably would admit that he was one of the most paranoid men ever to sit in the Oval Office — and, after the Pentagon Papers were leaked in June 1971, I'm sure he must have sensed increased public scrutiny in his foreign policy.

In 1971, Nixon was vulnerable on that issue, after all his talk in the 1968 campaign about the need for new leadership to replace the failed leadership of the previous four years. By October 1972, he must have seen the rhetorical value of being able to say a deal for peace ("with honor," as he put it) was in the works.

Nixon did, as a matter of fact, sign such an agreement in January of 1973 — but the hostilities in Vietnam continued for more than two years (outlasting Nixon's presidency, which ended with his resignation in August 1974).

Similarly, Obama's presidency is vulnerable if this deal falls through and the United States winds up defaulting. That could wind up causing a chain reaction of economic events that no one can imagine — or wants.

Fortunately, the Asian markets responded positively to the news of an impending deal, which should relieve some of the pressure on U.S. lawmakers.

Well, it buys them some time — a few hours, anyway.

But there isn't much time left.

Is peace really at hand?

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