“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
That’s an old line. Think of it today in terms of politics, when for more than two hundred years we’ve been fooled over and over again, time after time.
Finally Americans realize it is they who are being fooled, and that they allowed it. No more, they shout today. And yet, and yet…they stand in crowds of thousands in wretched weather to hear one charlatan after another say, “On my first day in office, I’m going to…”
Alternately, the line is changed: “On Day One, I’m going to demolish the I.R.S., bomb the hell out of ISIS, destroy the departments of commerce, education and the E.P.A., send criminals to Guantanamo, build a thousand foot tall fence along our border, establish a fair flat tax, save the middle class, create fourteen million jobs in two months….”
Some, or several, of those items are pie in the sky. The speaker knows it. His campaign workers know it. Congress and the courts know it. The big banks know it. Ethanol knows it; G.M.knows it; college presidents know it. The only people who don’t get it are the millions of angry Americans who have believed promises like these for decades. And now, finally, they are beginning to get it.
What this means is that the next president, whoever he or she may be, is going to be an instantaneous target of his or her millions of supporters on Day Two of his or her first term. (Day One belongs to the Inaugural, after all, to the half a dozen voters in the nation who still believe.)
There will be no honeymoon for the next president.
Making “Day One” promises is a dangerous business. The anger across the country at our system of governing grows louder by the day.
On the other hand, for the past one hundred years, we’ve been able to come up with a sensational standard of living. We’ve welcomed immigrants who have helped us grow stronger and more inclusive of hope, belief, and deed. Technologically we’re all living in an age of wonders. Our incomes, flat now but earlier burgeoning, gave rise to the entrepreneurial and stabilizing middle class. Without that, no Ford or GM, no international trade, no home manufacturing that was once the envy of the world. No role as a peace-maker across borders. No man on the moon. No social safety nets for seniors and the disabled. No passing from one generation to another not just wealth, but also energy and ideas. We’ve a lot of which to be proud.
We also have, and this is worth remembering, a system of government that acts as checks and balances on executive and Congressional power.
Time and again, the nation has elected to maintain this separation of powers. It makes voters feel more secure when outrageous ideas and proposals rise to the top of the bottle, and need to be skimmed back to reality.
And that, folks, is the Day One crisis in a nutshell.
All these outrageous Day One proposals by this year’s candidates are foredoomed to be torn apart by our very own system of examination, of advice and consent, and we need to remember this.
“Every man’s ox is gored” sooner or later. No matter how wild a candidate’s daydreams are, they are also someone else’s worst nightmare. Which leads to competition, to tension, to visceral madness. To gridlock.
To anger. Perhaps to revolt, which sounds alarmist but may also be true.
So as we all listen these next few months to the putative plans of would-be presidents, we have to be able to recall at the same time that the system under which we live makes it nearly impossible for any one man or woman to walk into the Oval Office on Day Two and actually begin to dismantle those parts of government he or she has targeted up until that moment.
Until and unless we remember the value of our democratic system, not one voter is going to be entirely happy on Day Two.
Day One scenarios are imaginary. Our daily lives are not. Therein lies the tension between cooperation and obstructionism, between real progress in dealing with our needs and problems, and false progress which papers over the holes in the roadways but from a distance provides not unpleasant scenery.
Day One is a Great Idea. Day Two is what we get instead.
This may increase our anger and frustration levels, but we are destined to continue to live with these facts.
And without the US Constitution, no facts at all.
That, too, is worth remembering.