A recent New Yorker article about city affairs referred to the "perverse" logic of politics: "Serious problems produce crises; therefore problems resolved without a crisis can't have been very serious." What disturbs us about that attitude is not just its perversity but also the implication that, sometimes, good governance makes for bad politicsand vice versa. The more frequently this perverse logic obtains, the more fragile our experiment in self-government will become. America's founders, surveying the long, dismal history of failed republics, devised a Constitution that would provide "a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government."
But that remedy can do only so much. The "constitutional space" the founders established between the people and the government was meant to let legislators and executives pursue beneficial but unpopular policies. We hold presidential elections every four years, not every four weeks. Unlike in parliamentary systems, presidents cannot lose office at any moment with a no-confidence vote.
Today, in the age of the permanent campaign, that constitutional space has been greatly reduced. Polls continuously "measure" the popularity of every candidate and policy down to the tenth of a percentage point. The result is the virtual disappearance of the distinction between governance and politics. Politicians worry about these polls, for reasons that have nothing to do with personal vanity. The perception of political weakness seamlessly becomes the reality. High "negatives" and low "approval ratings" embolden enemies and frighten off allies, making it harder for an elected official to accomplish anything, further depressing his poll numbers.
The weight of political incentives tilts the scale against resolute, far-sighted government action to prevent a problem from becoming a crisis. Politicians find that heading off a crisis permits people in this optimistic country to think that the crisis wasn't going to happen anyway, and that the relatively modest sacrifices needed to prevent it were inflicted unnecessarily. The elected official's temptation is to swim with the current, and let the problem grow, untended, into a crisis. Then people might listen to talk about stern measures.
For example, it's been clear for 20 years that the federal government's biggest entitlement programs, Medicare and Social Security, are unsustainable. Even passing familiarity with demographics shows both programs are obligated to pay out trillions of dollars more than they expect to receive once the baby boom generation retires. Yet nothing is done; the political resistance is too great. And every year that nothing is done means that when somethingfinally, inevitablyis done, it will be much more painful than the correctives that might have sufficed 10 or 20 years ago.
To take an even graver threat to the republic, March 11, 2004 marked exactly two-and-a-half years since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The most important story of these past 30 months is what hasn't happenedmore such murderous acts on American soil. No one would have predicted so many months without incident in the aftermath of the attacks.
The motives and capabilities of the Islamist killers are inscrutable to laymen. The most reasonable conjecture about their stand-down is that the overt and covert actions of the U.S. government have made it difficult for them to carry out their plans. Running for your life has a way of crowding other things off the calendar.
Do we see George W. Bush buoyed in the polls by a wave of gratitude for thwarting the next round of terrorist attacks? Many recent surveys show him running behind Senator John Kerry, by margins as high as 12 percent. The perverse logic of the president's position is that the success of the war on terrorism has permitted people to think that 9/11 was an isolated incident. His success in preventing subsequent attacks allows all those who want to believe the world is not such a scary place to imagine that subsequent attacks wouldn't have happened in any case. One poll of Democratic primary voters asked them which of a dozen issues concerned them most; terrorism and homeland security placed dead last, with 3 percent.
If President Bush is defeated in November, the most important cause will be that enough Americans shared that blithe attitude to elect John Kerry. That outcome will, like the election results from Spain this weekend, be a good thing for terrorists and a bad thing for democracy. Terrorism will become a more serious threat to our nation after the repudiation of the strenuous efforts against it. Worse, our democracythe interaction between voters and politicians that ought to make wise governance possiblewill have taken a shape that also makes it a threat to our country's safety. What could be more perverse than that?