WASHINGTON -- John McCain, who is in what Macbeth called "the sear, the yellow leaf" of life, has revived an oldie from seven elections ago with a campaign commercial asserting: "We're worse off than we were four years ago." This, of course, derives from Ronald Reagan's question, addressed to the nation with devastating effect on his opponent, during Reagan's debate with President Jimmy Carter in 1980.
The nation considered the answer obvious. Reeling from oil shocks worse than today's, with 52 U.S. hostages in Tehran and with the Soviet Union rampant in Afghanistan, voters resoundingly said "no." Today we know that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan hastened the collapse of the Evil Empire, so some things that seem to make us worse off are not unmixed curses.
Imitation is the sincerest form of politics and in 1996 President Bill Clinton, seeking re-election, urged voters to ask themselves whether they were better off than they were four years earlier. Today we know that the nation's affirmative answer reflected the beguiling beginning of what turned out to be the tech stock bubble, so some things that seem to make us better off are not unmixed blessings.
McCain recasts Reagan's question as an assertion in order to pander to the public's dyspepsia and distance himself from George Bush. Enough.
In contemporary politics, nothing succeeds like excess, so permutations of Reagan's trope are going to recur. Therefore, it is time to consider its deficiencies, which are symptomatic of a desiccated mentality.
Unfortunately, the phrase "better off" is generally understood as a reference to your salary, your bank balance, your IRA and the like. But wait. Are you better off being four years older? That depends.
If you are young, since 2004 you might have found romance, had children, learned to fly-fish and become a Tampa Bay Rays fan. In which case you emphatically are better off, even if since 2004 there has been only a 0.6 percent increase -- yes, increase -- in the median value of single-family homes.
If you are near "the sear, the yellow leaf" of life, in the last four years your expected remaining years of life have declined. But that does not mean you cannot be better off.
Suppose in those years you read "Middlemarch," rediscovered Fred Astaire's movies, took up fly-fishing, saw Chartres and acquired grandchildren. Even if the value of your stock portfolio is down since 2004 (the Dow actually is up), are you not decidedly better off?