Once in a generation, the stars align for a political leader. There is this perfect moment – too often based on some enormous danger of long-lasting consequences for generations to come.
Once every half century, the perfect combination of leadership and threat, of challenge and response meet. The leader – imperfect, fallible, yet ready to rise to the occasion – grabs the brass ring.
Think Winston Churchill fighting the global threat of the Nazis, Thomas Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence, JFK’s dare to send a man to the Moon.
On September 11th, George W. Bush was presented one of those rare and horrible historical moments. The terrorist attacks united the country and the world around the President: His approval rating skyrocketed to 90%. Even the French Prime Minister announced, “Tonight, we are all Americans.”
The historical opportunity was laid at the feet of the President. With a unified country behind him and a sympathetic world willing to cooperate with him in just about every imaginable way, he could have achieved monumental greatness: He could have asked for great sacrifices from the populace, and they would have willingly made them. At that moment, any reach across the aisle would have been fruitful on a number of vexing issues. A bipartisan approach to any political problem at home – cutting pork out of domestic policies, reforming Social Security, renovating the tax code – could have been accomplished in a bipartisan spirit of strengthening the economy and defending the country. He might have even done something about our education system so, in truth, no child would be left behind.
One would imagine that a man elected under what can be charitably described as “inauspicious circumstances” – with nary a mandate in sight – might have taken the 9/11 tragedy as an opportunity to move to the center, putting aside partisan political differences, and governing “all the people.” To be, in fact, truly a “uniter,” not a “divider.”
Alas, it was not to be.
After invading Afghanistan and damaging the Taliban, the President made a monumental blunder. He followed the advice of the cabal around him, and made a hard-right turn. Surrounded by ideological extremists, he took advantage of a staggering national tragedy to ram through a series of radical programs: Severe tax cuts; the highly controversial Patriot Act; and last, a very questionable second war in Iraq.
If President Bush ends up losing tonight, he only has himself to blame. Even worse than the loss, however, will be the unkind words history will write about him and his administration. It will be one of missed opportunity and squandered potential.
The epitaph will read: “Here lies the Bush Administration. It’s great tragedy was being handed a brass ring and refusing to grab it.”