Of all the half-baked sentiments being expressed these days, none is more misplaced than the vaguely anguished complaint that our politics have collided -- to our great misfortune -- with an overseas crisis. This, to hear the gloomers tell it, is terrible because: 1) concentration on international troubles is distorting our domestic politics, and 2) domestic politics is likely to tempt our leaders and would-be leaders into acts of recklessness concerning the crisis abroad. What junk. I think the two are doing each other a world of good.
Let's start with the political lament. This has consisted mainly of the sour observation of candidates of both parties that the aura of emergency and risk, plus the national preoccupation with the embassy in Tehran, has radically changed the political atmosphere. Well, of course it has, and it has also provided an incumbent president with some opportunites to look suitably grave and Churchillian, along with some not-so-attractive opportunities to fail in a cataclysmic way. But there is something utterly unpersuasive about the complaint that the chaos and peril in the Middle East and Southwest Asia are depriving Americans of a political test on the real issues or destroying what was a first-class script for this political year.
That script, like most prearranged scripts for a political year, was contrived, labored, a turkey. What is being mourned was well worth losing: a lot of debating-point, politically cute exchanges about who voted or argued this way or that on some issue that everyone knows was only marginally affected by the hideous deeds and derelictions of which the candidates accuse each other. ("Did you or did you not say, in an after-dinner speech to the Mattress Picking Manufacturers Association, in Dallas, on Aug. 12, 1977 . . .") Candidates like to talk about congressional votes that had practically nothing to do with anything and also about issues that no president can actually have much impact on. They like to talk, in other words, theoretically and abstractly. They like to control the agenda. What they want to do is play -- and where possible to rig the rules of the game.
This winter's conflagration overseas has made that impossible. It has confronted the candidates with a range of issues that are truly presidential in nature, being about national policies, risks and actions whose locus is indisputably the White House. In that sense, it has injected an unaccustomed element of reality into the political discourse. It has also injected a very desirable element of unpredictability, testing the candidates in unexpected ways, putting them on the spot.
It is interesting that some of those most lyrically extolling the virtues of debates among the candidates and most roundly denouncing those who have declined to participate so far always cite this kind of testing as a rationale for the debates -- but seem less kindly disposed to it as a feature of the present crisis-ridden political atmosphere. Yet the ad hoc, unmanipulated day-by-day challenges being forced upon both parties' candidates -- What do you say to this? How do you react to that? -- seem to me to embody precisely the virtues of the debates that are most widely praised. And they seem to do so in a far more compelling and consequential way than even the most robust debate could.
Finally, there is, thanks to the frightening developments in Afghanistan and around the Persian Gulf, an intensification in our election-year arguments of the handful of issues that really matter. They are thrust forward in their starkest and most inescapable forms, the questions of energy, economy and military action that go to the heart of our national survival and the nature of life here and in Western Europe. Yes, that is dramatic, but so are the stakes and the choices. When people are guessing whether or not the Russians will be in Tehran by next summer, it does give you a certain perspective on the relative importance of what candidate x may have said to those mattress-makers in Texas three years ago.
I suppose around how I should enter the necessary disclaimer: I don't think the troubles abroad are good, only that they are good for our generally flabby political discussions. And I also think, despite a lot of top-floor Washington handwringing to the contrary, the thing works the other way around: wour domestic politics is also having a beneficial effect on our government's behavior overseas and will continue to. Those great interpreters of our democracy, Ayatollah Khomeini, Leonid Brezhnev and the Soviet press, have, one way and another, all been joining with the worst elitist elements in this country to make one point. It is that the president and his competitors for office are supporting certain actions abroad only because it is an election year and they want to win.
My reaction is: well, I hope that is what they are doing -- why shouldn't they be? The only answer is the fundamentally snooty, antidemocratic one, that the public is a mindless, blood-thirsty or self-indulgent mob whose counsel and preferences are not to be trusted, let alone followed. Reflecting this bent line of reasoning in Washington, you sometimes hear people use the word "statesmanlike" to describe a politician's stand that is known to be at variance with the popular will and, therefore , by definition, statesmanlike.
I know the episodes and tendencies in American political life that generate this set of snobberies and apprehensions. But to dwell on them is to miss the main point -- namely, that popular will and instinct have time and again (and surely with this president) prodded our leadership in the right direction on high-stakes foreign-policy questions or called it back from the edge of big and dangerous mistakes. Jimmy Carter's own tilt toward a queer kind of recklessly invincible passivity and good cheer was being nudged back within bounds by political pressures long before the ayatollah and the Russian adventurers gave him such a jolt.
Periodically, the gurus of our foreign-policy apparatus issue some dire warnings about how dumb and mean the public is going to be in reaction to some foreign situation. But regularly it turns out that the public didn't make nearly as much trouble as the gurus predicted or, for that matter, nearly as much trouble as the gurus themselves caused. I think, in short, that there is generally some corrective mechanism in our public politics that helps to keep the leaders straight.
But people, clearly, also need and want to be prodded, pushed, nudged, informed and corrected themselves: led . And my guess is that the convulsive events abroad that have gripped their imagination and altered our politics are going to help them choose more intelligently before this year is over, not distort the process or render it risky to the continued existence of the planet as we know it. In that limited sense, anyway, our antagonists in Tehran and Moscow have probably done the voters a favor.