Bob Herbert, The New York Times
It would be easy to misread the results of Tuesday’s elections, and it looks as if the leaders of both parties are doing exactly that.
Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are offering voters the kind of change that they seem so desperately to want. We’re getting mind-numbing chatter about balanced budgets and smaller government and whether Mitch McConnell and his gang can chase President Obama out of the White House in 2012.
What voters want is leadership that will help them through an economic nightmare and fix a country that has been pitched into a state of sharp decline. They long for leaders with a clear and compelling vision of a better America and a road map for getting there. That leadership has long been AWOL. The hope in the tumultuous elections of 2008 was that it would come from Mr. Obama and the Democrats, but that hope, after just two years, is on life support.
Tuesday’s outcome was the result of voters, still hungry for change, who either switched in anger from the Democrats to the Republicans or, out of a deep sense of disappointment, stayed home.
It was hardly a mandate for the G.O.P.’s way of doing things. Nearly 15 million Americans are out of work. The public does not want the next two years to be a bitter period of endless Congressional investigations of the Obama administration; more tax cuts and other giveaways to the very wealthy; and attacks on programs like Social Security, Medicare and unemployment insurance that offer at least a measure of economic security for ordinary people.
It would also be a mistake for the Democrats, a terminally timid party, to cave in to their opponents and start embracing a G.O.P. agenda that would only worsen the prospects of ordinary working Americans and the poor.
The Democrats are in disarray because it’s a party that lacks a spine. The Republicans, conversely, fight like wild people whether they’re in the majority or not. What neither party is doing is offering a bold, coherent plan to get the nation’s economy in good shape and create jobs, to bring our young men and women home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to rebuild the education system in a way that will prepare the next generation for the great challenges of the 21st century, and to reinvigorate the can-do spirit of America in a way that makes people believe that they are working together toward grand and constructive goals.
Great challenges demand great leaders. Marian Anderson once said, “Leadership should be born out of the understanding of the needs of those who would be affected by it.”
Americans right now are riddled with fears and anxieties of many kinds. They are worried about the economic well-being of their families, the cost of securing a decent education for their children, their prospects for a comfortable retirement, the continuing threat of terrorism, and the debilitating effects of endless warfare. They worry that America’s best days may be in the past.
Neither party talked about the wars during the campaign because neither party has anything satisfactory to say about them. And there was hardly any talk about education. We know that a quality education is more important now than ever, but we are firing teachers by the scores of thousands, not because they are incompetent, but because state and local budgets have hemorrhaged.
Our leaders in Washington seem entirely out of touch with the needs, the hopes, the fears and the anxieties of the millions of Americans who are out of work, who are struggling with their mortgages or home foreclosures, who are skimping on needed medication in order to keep food on the table, and who lie awake at night worrying about what the morning will bring. No one even dares mention the poor.
What this election tells me is that real leadership will have to come from elsewhere, from outside of Washington, perhaps from elected officials in statehouses or municipal buildings that are closer to the people, from foundations and grass-roots organizations, from the labor movement and houses of worship and community centers.
The civil rights pioneers did not wait for presidential or Congressional leadership, nor did the leaders of the women’s movement. They plunged ahead with their crucial work against the longest odds and in the face of seemingly implacable hostility. Leaders of the labor movement braved guns, bombs, imprisonment and heaven knows what else to bring fair wages and dignity to working people.
America’s can-do spirit can be revived, and with it a brighter vision of a fairer, more inclusive, and more humane society. But not if we wait on Washington to do it. The loudest message from Tuesday’s election is that the people themselves need to do much more.
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