Chapter 1. The Story We’re Told
All Americans want a good life for themselves and their families. They want to be proud of their country and to believe that it can live up to its ideals. A friend asked me recently if I thought dealing with our national problems was possible in the money-soaked political and media world we live in. I said “Yes,” emphatically—anything is possible in America. But no one is going to make us do the right thing. It’s our choice.
Either we can ignore our country’s problems until they’re so big that they’re almost impossible to solve or we can make the substantive decisions now that will secure America’s future. At this watershed moment, political courage and political action have to take precedence over ideology. Politics, like many other human activities, can become inflexible. Once that happens, what needs to be done to save the whole cannot break through. We are at such a moment.
How can ordinary citizens bring about a change in the political culture that will give us a fresh start and realize our best hopes as a nation? Will one of our two major parties seize the high ground with an agenda that takes the country to a new level of greatness?
In this book, I will talk about where we are, what we must do now, and why it’s good politics to do it. I will talk about what role politics plays in our society generally, and I will show how the Republican Party’s dedication to building party structure usually has allowed it to outstrip the Democrats, who dream instead of finding a charismatic leader. I will describe how the warring factions within the Republican Party now endanger a structure carefully built over thirty-five years, threatening even the party itself—and how the only way the Democratic Party can overcome the inertia of its recent history is to connect emotionally with voters, which requires a clarity rooted in values, based on convictions, and expressed in explicit programs that can help people where they live their lives.
A key to our country’s future is the word “common”—that which we share as Americans. It’s not just the so-called blue states that have compassion, and it’s not just the so-called red states that want to fight terrorism. One of the biggest lies perpetrated on the public in recent decades is the red/blue division of our country—the idea that we are hopelessly split by warring ideologies, unforgiving in our criticism of each other, unwilling even to listen to the other side of the argument. The media amplify this lie and, in doing so, have helped to drive a spike through the heart of civility and compromise. The political elites may indeed be at one another’s throats, but the Ameri- can people are not.
We are obliged to recognize our common human aspirations as well as our abundant human frailties. Friends may have different political opinions, but they often walk for a while in each other’s shoes. We give our neighbors the benefit of the doubt every day. When you’re watching your son’s Little League baseball game, you don’t say to yourself, “I wonder if the parent sitting next to me is a ‘red’ or a ‘blue.’ ” Even family members hold different views on hot topics—on abortion, immigration, the war in Iraq, what to do about income inequality—but they still love, honor, and communicate with one another. Within families, differing political views are often treated as lovable idiosyncrasies rather than battle cries. An aunt of mine is a staunch conservative. We don’t spend a lot of time talking politics (except when I’m kidding her), but I don’t love her less because her political philosophy differs from mine.
There is a new story—a New American Story—which says that America is a family, too, and that it has, collectively, the same generosity of spirit. All we have to do is bring it out, not stifle it with fear or poison it with animosity. That doesn’t mean that our politics will be less important or that Republicans and Democrats will come to agree on most issues. Far from it. Politics has never been more important, and differences openly expressed are the only way a democracy can make a choice. It just means that demonizing the other side doesn’t facilitate the process that leads to informed consent of the governed.
The story we’re told today by our current leadership is largely a can’t-do story. In this book, I want to shine a light on this negative story and show how misleading it is. To do that, I had to put myself in the shoes of its proponents. I had to feel the way they feel about what they’re telling us, and I have done my best to represent it accurately. I tell an alternate story—one that offers hope and sets out to inspire all Americans to work toward securing, as promised in the Preamble to our Constitution, “the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
During the forty-two years I travelled around America—first as a basketball player, then as a United States senator, then as a presidential candidate—I formed a strong sense of what it meant to be an American. I visited every state in the union and travelled to thirty-one foreign countries—some regularly. I came to my own conclusions about what the United States meant to the world. As a candidate for the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination, I talked about the goodness of the American people—the heroic acts that seldom got reported, the courage shown against all odds, the generosity to strangers, the capacity to dream. I still believe in those American traits I observed firsthand over many years—traits that are part of our heritage.
But while Americans have inspiring stories to tell about their individual lives, these days you rarely hear an inspiring narrative about America itself. When I ran for president, I had a positive story in mind about what kind of country America had been, was, and could be. Losing the race did not diminish my desire to tell that story, to demonstrate that we can lead our nation and the world in new ways.
But first we need to examine the story we are told today—over and over, both in the media and by the present administration and its supporters—about America. What does it say is possible for us to achieve, both individually and as a nation? What does this story say about who we are, what we believe is important, what we are willing to sacrifice for? What are we proudest of? What do we have to offer other nations?
As I hear it, the story we’re being told about America now goes something like this:
Today we are the most powerful nation in the world. Our economy dwarfs all others. Our military faces no serious challengers. We won the cold war. We need other countries less than before. We straddle the world like a colossus. Although it’s true that many countries don’t like us, that’s the price of success, of leadership, of being number one.
Our democracy represents the world’s most advanced form of governance. The free market, with its efficient allocation of resources, brings the greatest good to the greatest number of people. The most important values are individual economic freedom and faith in God. Government help to those in need can be replaced by the charitable, faith-based impulse of millions of Americans. Charity will suffice, because Americans are the world’s most generous and devout people.
It’s no coincidence that we have more millionaires than any other country. It’s no surprise that we win more gold medals than any other Olympics participant. It’s neither coincidental nor surprising that millions of people worldwide want to immigrate to America: After all, our songs are sung everywhere, our movies are watched around the globe, and everybody wears our blue jeans. We have what the world wants.
The most important thing to remember about our post-9/11 role in the world is that we are at war. The president’s first job, as commander in chief, is to protect us from physical threats. Nothing is more essential than our national security. Without it, we will perish. People who oppose the war in Iraq are dangerously wrong. Would they prefer to fight the terrorists in Iraq or here in the United States?
There is evil in the world, and evil nations are doing evil things. We have to put the full weight of the United States on the side of righteousness and democracy, not only to ensure our own safety but to establish the freedom of people everywhere. The normal rules of war and of our judicial system cannot always be observed in this conflict. Terrorists have no appreciation of the sanctity of human life. Unless we take extreme measures, our enemies will inflict much pain, suffering, and death. America’s very existence is at stake in this struggle. On the issue of constitutionality, we have to recognize that the president’s fundamental responsibility is to protect the American people. Without guaranteed security, there would be no Constitution.
This is the story we’re being told about our role in the world—but does operating under it really assure our long-term security? To continue:
America is not perfect, but none of our problems is unmanageable. Their seriousness is often exaggerated, generally for political reasons. Yes, our budget deficit is large, but as a percentage of our gross domestic product it is smaller than the deficits of the early 1980s. Yes, our trade deficit is at an all-time high, but in a world with $9.8 trillion in savings, foreigners may well be willing to continue lending us the money to finance our consumption of their exports. The U.S. economy is so big that foreign ownership of our assets still represents only a fraction of our total assets. That household indebtedness as a percentage of GDP is higher than it has ever been tells us only that the American consumer is the backbone of the economy. Just look at the crowds in the malls.
What’s important for economic growth is to lower the tax burden on everyone, particularly on those who have the capital needed for investment. Without lower taxes, these people will have no incentive to invest—and their capital is the engine of our economy. Tax cuts produce economic growth, and accelerating growth leads to higher incomes and more tax revenue. Most people would rather keep the money they earn than send it to government to waste on programs that never seem to achieve their goals.
In fact, we really no longer need much government. Government only makes things worse. Most people can’t even name a single government program, other than Social Security or Medicare. Presidents Clinton and Bush II agree on one thing—that the era of big government is over. Federal bureaucrats are the problem. They call themselves civil servants, but they’re really underachievers with secure jobs who exert power by intrusive regulation that goes far beyond the intent of the law. If government would just get out of the way, many of our problems would solve themselves. Government bureaucrats don’t trust the people to make decisions that are in their own long-term interest. They insist they know what the people need better than the people themselves do.
These are the claims of the story we’re being told. But in the interdependent world we live in, can we really do without government? Without it, who would establish the rules for commerce? And are we really prepared to assume direct personal responsibil- ity for the lives of those who have fallen by the wayside? Aren’t there some things, besides national security, that only government can do?
Because most of us are skeptical of what government can accomplish and don’t want to finance its programs with higher taxes, any politician who argues that taxes ought to go up will lose. Look at Walter Mondale. He lost to Ronald Reagan in 1984 because he told the American people that as president he would raise taxes. George W. Bush saw his father lose the presidency to Bill Clinton in 1992 because Bush Senior had broken his pledge of “no new taxes.” Many of the House Democrats who lost their seats in the 1994 midterm elections will tell you it was because they voted for the Clinton budget package, which included higher taxes on the wealthy. Politicians underestimate the American people when they say that without adequate taxes roads will continue to deteriorate, schools will remain mediocre, pensions will become even less secure, and those without health insurance will stay uninsured. With the help of private enterprise, we will find a way to strengthen vital services, and by cutting taxes we will starve those parts of government that waste taxpayers’ money. The Bush tax cuts have kept the economy healthy. Those who complain that nearly 55 percent of that money went to the wealthy ignore the fact that wealth is the driving force of capitalism.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The New American Story by Bill Bradley. Copyright © 2007 by Bill Bradley. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.