This has been 1980s week in popular culture. Wednesday was “Back to the Future Day” as reality caught up to the time travel journey in the 1989 sequel to the original 1985 movie. The Mets (last championship in 1986) are in the World Series and they are likely to be playing the Kansas City Royals (the 1985 victors).
The 1980s nostalgia also took a more serious turn. Several times during her marathon testimony at Thursday’s Benghazi hearing, Hillary Clinton recalled the constructive bipartisan response to the tragic 1983 Beirut bombings that killed nearly 300 American embassy personnel and Marines.
There was no Democratic scheming back then about using the post-tragedy congressional hearings to drive down Ronald Reagan’s poll numbers. As the New Yorker's Jane Mayer recalled, “It’s clear what has really deteriorated in the intervening three decades. It’s not the security of American government personnel working abroad. It’s the behavior of American congressmen at home.”
The sneering tone of much of the Republican questioning of Clinton served as a reminder that dignity in all things remains in short supply among the GOP majority on Capitol Hill. In fact, the Benghazi hearings can serve as a symbol of our current Republic of Dysfunction. Ronald Reagan’s shining city on the hill has been replaced by a dystopian slum where carrying out even the most rudimentary functions of government (holding serious congressional hearings or raising the debt ceiling) are beyond the capacity of Congress.
In fact, it takes a bit of head-scratching to recall the last time our democracy worked roughly as it was supposed to. We’re not talking about a moment when daffodils burst through DC’s sidewalks and unicorns gamboled on the Washington Mall. Instead, it would be enough to identify a period when compromise in politics was not regarded as a synonym for treason and the dominant expectation was that the government would function after a reasonable amount of partisan give-and-take.
All this brings us back to the 1980s and the one-term presidency of George H.W. Bush.
Elected in 1988 after one of the most vicious campaigns in modern history (the Willie Horton ad and implied attacks on Michael Dukakis’ patriotism), Bush governed as if none of this unpleasantness had ever occurred.
Some of this reflected Bush’s truncated ambitions for his own presidency. As Michael Duffy and Dan Goodgame wrote in their 1992 chronicle of the 41st president, Marching in Place, “Though he projected an image of political moderation, Bush is deeply conservative in his fear of change…his caution and his reactiveness.”
Of course, there was confrontation. Bush, facing a Democratic Congress, vetoed 44 bills—and all but one was sustained. The annual budget fights led to a brief government shutdown in 1990. And the scorched-earth 1991 Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings revolved around X-rated videos far more than judicial philosophy.
As president, Bush understood the philosophy behind the old-time TV game show, Let’s Make a Deal. Duffy and Goodgame mock Bush’s “straddle-happy approach” that led to the president arbitrarily picking a midpoint between Democratic and Republican proposals for raising the minimum wage.
He also broke his “read my lips—no new taxes” campaign pledge in 1990 as a part of a budget deal. That might have been prudent fiscal policy but it also produced Pat Buchanan’s 1992 primary challenge that contributed to Bush’s defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton.
These days, legislators in both parties show scant interest in writing a statute to provide a legal justification for the murky war against the Islamic State. In contrast, Bush scrupulously went to Capitol Hill in 1991 to win approval to launch the Gulf War. The president’s narrow victory (52-to-47 in the Senate) marked the closest vote on such a military question since the approval of the War of 1812.
Please understand that this is not designed as an uncritical tribute to the enduring greatness of the first President Bush. But reliving this history, it is hard not to want to return to the late 1980s and early 1990s—a political era when things were simply better on almost all fronts.
This Era of Good Feelings ended abruptly with Clinton’s election in 1992. The causes of this change in the mood in Washington are complex. They include Clinton’s status as the first babyboomer president; his Southern pedigree and accent; his role as only the second Democrat in the White House since LBJ; and the increasing partisan venom of House Republicans under the emerging leadership of Newt Gingrich.
January 20, 1994—a year to the day after Clinton’s inaugural—can be highlighted as the moment when everything changed. Attorney General Janet Reno appointed Robert Fiske as special prosecutor to investigate the Whitewater land deal. It didn’t matter that Whitewater was one of those over-hyped Clinton scandals that proved to be a dry hole.
Later that year, because of a change in the legislation governing special prosecutors, Fiske was replaced by Kenneth Starr. More important, Starr eventually expanded the sputtering Whitewater probe into the Monica Lewinsky investigation—and the second impeachment trial of a president in American history.
Now for a sobering statistic: Americans over the age of 40 are the only citizens with even the dimmest adult memories of the presidency of George H.W. Bush. What that means is that close to 100 million eligible voters have no first-hand recollection of a time when things worked in Washington. That might be a starting point for understanding the crippling cynicism that hangs over contemporary politics.
That is also why I felt a twinge of sadness over Joe Biden’s decision not to run for president. His path to the nomination would have been difficult if not impossible. But Biden (and John Kerry) are the last major figures in public life who served in the Senate during the 1980s. They are, in effect, the last witnesses to the days when our politics was dominated by the better angels of American democracy.
It was probably naive to believe that a Biden campaign could have changed any of that. Let alone that an unlikely Biden presidency would somehow create a warming glow of national unity. But desperate times call for a form of magical thinking. And right now—sadly enough—I cannot envision any plausible president in 2017 who can actually govern this spite-filled and dispirited land.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.