Veteran political advisor and pundit David Gergen touched down in Boise last week to address the Association of Idaho Cities annual conference and the packed house of local and state officials wasn't quite sure what to make of him.
Certainly he had solid partisan bona fides for the many Republican muckety-mucks in attendance. After all, Gergen had served in the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan administrations (he also served a tour with the Clinton administration). And Gergen even staffed George H.W. Bush's 1980 campaign. And on the MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour, which moderator Dr. Jim Weatherby cited as the single finest example of political dialogue on television, Gergen represented the conservative viewpoint with foil Mark Shields.
But I have to believe Republicans walked away feeling slightly deflated (and perhaps betrayed) after hearing Gergen. He lambasted President Bush (who at one time enjoyed his highest popularity in Idaho, despite declining numbers everywhere else), pointing out that he's even less popular than Nixon was on the day he resigned. He also noted that Bush's great failures can be attributed to a lack of well seasoned judgment and intellectual curiosity and quoted Harry Truman, "Not every reader is a leader, but every leader is a reader." Bush, as Gergen reminded the audience, is not a reader and almost prided himself on his anti-intellectualism.
But more to the point, Gergen weighed in on the presidential race and predicted, without hesitation, that Democrats will achieve a "swollen majority" in Congress as well as in various statehouses around the country. "For the average American, these have not been good years. Poverty has gone up. Average wages have gone down. More wealth has flowed to the top....This is a country that is unhappy and anxious and that's bad news for Republicans."
Perhaps Gergen's most instructive and sobering comments were saved for his conclusion, in which he outlined what he viewed as the country's transcendent challenges. He prefaced these warnings with a grim assessment of our current state: “The campaigns have not yet come to grips with the reality…. The country is not well prepared for the challenges…. ‘Sacrifice’ is barely passing from people’s lips.” Then, the challenges:
1) Getting our house in order: The overall theme here, and it’s one that’s particularly salient in Idaho, is that we have postponed action on so many different problems and now the bills are coming due. Health care costs need to be controlled; Social Security and Medicare must be reformed or Moody’s will downgrade our nation’s credit rating (read: bad news). A sensible, long-term energy plan, that guarantees some modicum of energy security, is also long overdue according to Gergen. And, we need to lift the quality of our public education system or our children simply won’t be able to compete in the global marketplace.
2) Nuclear proliferation: The world is about to become a much more dangerous place, as many countries will assert their nuclear aspirations—“a very serious issue with very grave implications.”
3) Climate change: “There’s no debate. We’ve created damage and instability. We will have to act fast to avoid a catastrophe.”
4) The Rise of Asia: The world’s center of gravity has already moved to Asia. How will we avoid wars with the great emerging powers? Will the U.S. still be at the table of the great powers???
Gergen was even-handed and witty throughout, lavishing praise on John McCain and Mitt Romney, denouncing anti-Mormon bigotry and pointing out the downside risk (as well as huge upside potential) of Barack Obama.
But the most important takeaway was this: a man who has been an eyewitness to power for over 30 years is convinced that timid leadership will only further exacerbate the crises we face. We can no longer afford to tinker at the margins of the enormous challenges we face (nor refuse to pony up the money to tackle these challenges—i.e. make sacrifices). Gergen’s address was a clarion call for authentic and courageous leadership—leaders who don’t shirk from our challenges, but see them for what they are and seek to solve them by mobilizing Americans behind a common cause. Such leaders aren’t just needed in the White House; we must elect them at every level of government and in every state. As Bill Moyers has said of the upcoming 2008 elections, “There’s never been more at stake.”