There is the party of hope and there is the party of memory, and often enough they are the same party just a couple of years removed. For the bright hopes of election season inevitably give way to the harsh realities of exercising power -- for good or ill. Then the party in power is weighed in the balance, and its performance compared with its promises.
When that party it is found wanting, there is no refuge like recalling those halcyon days when all was possible, when hope and change were in the air. Now excuses must be made, and in politics nostalgia can be a useful substitute for accomplishment.
Democrats have been singing "Happy Days Here Again" at national conventions since Franklin D. Roosevelt was their nominee in 1932 and somehow was going to change everything. And did. No wonder the song stirs the fondest memories.
Once upon a terrible time, when the country was about to be plunged into civil war, a new, third party was going to somehow save the Union from the Slave Power -- and it did. For the rest of the century, Republicans sang "Marching Through Georgia" at their rallies, and waved the bloody shirt in every presidential election, trusting memory to rekindle hope.
So when Barack Obama urges his supporters not to yield to apathy in these midterm elections, he is following a familiar pattern and psychological strategy. All those young people who had turned out for Hope and Change must be rallied again -- even if hopes have dimmed and the changes have proven less than popular.
As the political pendulum swings, an always fickle public now shows signs of rebelling against the party it was cheering madly only a couple of years ago. Once again, the latest Permanent Majority in American politics turns out to be not so permanent after all.
So the party of hope must become the party of memory, the past proudly recalled, and voters offered a distraction from the unsatisfying present.
No one can reasonably blame any party for not ushering in the Age of Utter Perfection. That's not the way the world works. But who said elections are exercises in reason? Has there been a presidential candidate who sought to reason with the American people since Adlai Stevenson's first outing in 1952? And we all know how that turned out.
The root of the Democratic Party's problems this year may not be that its performance has been so bad, even though it hasn't been so good, either, but that the hopes it raised two years ago were so unrealistic. Anything less than the Millennium would have fallen short of fulfilling them.
Even the most backward-looking party can get away with blaming the country's problems on a past president only so long. Herbert Hoover served the Democrats well in that regard for 20 years, but Americans already grow bored with tossing darts at a caricature of George W. Bush. Slowly, very slowly, a certain nostalgia for him is born. Just as an earlier generation of Americans came slowly to appreciate the most unpopular president of their time, Harry S. Truman. Hope and memory are fluid things.
Now it's the Republican Party that is rampant, and rides a rising tide of dissatisfaction with the party in power, or maybe just with the uncertain times in general. (And when were times ever certain?)
But the Republicans may have to postpone their victory parade if they don't learn what Barack Obama knew only a couple of years ago: It's not enough to attack the opposition. A successful party must offer an alternative.
So what is it the Grand Old Party stands for, not just against? If it's for free markets and a new birth of freedom in general, it needs to say so with clarity and verve, just as Ronald Reagan did in 1980. He stirred memory and hope. Just as FDR did before him.
While it's clear that the GOP is against all things Obaman, what is it for? If it cannot offer Americans a better future, and give voters some idea of what that future would look like, then its ascendancy, too, may be short-lived.
There's a name for what's missing in this year's electoral wasteland: vision. Even if the Republicans manage to win an off-year election without one, what would such a victory be worth? For where there is no vision, the prophet told us, the people perish. So do political parties.
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