There's a debate just behind the Republican search for a winning candidate, just at the edges of President Obama's campaign for re-election, about whether America is finished. These debaters put it in the form of a polite academic question: Is America in decline?
The debate, as such intellectual exercises always are, is restricted so far to the small but influential magazines read by the chattering class. When New Criterion magazine called for a symposium on the subject last spring, the editors were surprised to find they had tapped into the "pulse of the zeitgeist." A headline in Foreign Affairs magazine asks bluntly, "Is America Over?" Both liberals and conservatives argue over how to stop what they perceive as the national slide.
This isn't the first time such a notion has been raised in such circles. During the Cold War, the pessimists, intimidated by Soviet superiority of arms buildup and the tight control of the countries behind the Iron Curtain, prophesied impending doom. This lasted right up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Jimmy Carter called it "malaise," and many Americans, frightened by the sight of America (or at least Jimmy Carter) held hostage by Iran, agreed with the president that America was beginning to slip and slide.
But the recognition of decline can enable a comeback. Ronald Reagan entered stage right, proclaiming that it was "morning in America." The sobered Iranians returned the hostages the minute the new president took the oath of office, and soon Americans saw themselves as residents once more in the shining city on the hill. We had been at risk of decline before. When the Soviets sent Sputnik into space and vaunted American technology was severely challenged, the nation was galvanized into getting its act together, and soon Americans were on their way to plant an American flag on the moon.
The threat today is both foreign and domestic, which might be summed up in a tweak of lyrics from the musical "Cabaret": "A lack of money, money, money." High unemployment, a collapsed housing market and astronomical debt contribute to the inability to live up to the nation's heritage. Abandoned cultural habits and attitudes, a loss of belief and pride in the very idea of America are enough to sow doubts in the heart of any patriot.
What's at risk, it seems to me, is confidence in what's special about us, that what the Founding Fathers gave us is unique. The social critic Andrew McCarthy calls it "our conceit that the key to human flourishing is the free individual -- steeped in a tradition unapologetically built on Judeo-Christian principles of equality, justice, dignity and sacrifice, flavored with a distinctly American confidence, optimism and sense of adventure." This is what Abraham Lincoln called American exceptionalism.
It's a cliche that Barack Obama is happiest when he's apologizing for America being what it is, but he does more than apologize for the nation's flaws. He continues on a course to fundamentally transform the United States from a nation of limited government to a welfare society dependent on government whim. It's a recipe for decline.
As early as 2001, when not many of us were listening, Obama scorned the legacy of the Warren Supreme Court for, of all things, having flinched when it could have addressed the need for the redistribution of wealth. His State of the Union address this week ignored his responsibility for increasing the national debt and celebrated his vision of a different America. His speech, observed Yuval Levin, a scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, "offered a vision of a profoundly technocratic and activist government, with its hands in every nook and cranny of the nation's economic life."
The president offered no recipe for reforming entitlements, with its accumulated debt of $15 trillion, projected to be $22 trillion within a decade. We'll soon run out of zeroes. This debt to entitlements will impoverish future generations and neither Obama -- nor Congress -- can man up with practical solutions. It's the political class that's in decline.
Entrepreneurial enterprise and ingenuity remain as the source of American vitality. A president who understands America and how it works, of what works and what fails, could silence the talk of decline. Mitt Romney, who says he is that man, is specific about identifying the economic regulations and taxes that make businesses reluctant to expand. He quotes Margaret Thatcher: "The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people's money."
Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, in the Republican rebuttal to the president's State of the Union address, strikes a rebuttal as well to the faint-hearted disciples of decline. "There is nothing wrong with the state of our union that the American people, addressed as free-born, mature citizens, cannot set right." That sounds right to me.