In the Arena

A Time to Think Big

The country faces grave challenges. So why do Jeb Bush and Barack Obama spend so much time on small-bore maneuvers?

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Jeb Bush isn’t not running for President. This is big news, even though the next presidential election is several zillion tweets away. It shakes up the political money world, where potential saviors like Chris Christie and Marco Rubio may find it much harder to fill their treasuries. It may tee up yet another of those Bush-vs.-Clinton death matches that are so entertaining. But it is potentially more important for those who’d like to see the Republican Party evolve past its current juvenility. Bush is thoughtful, and he thinks big. Asked on Morning Joe to name the issues the Republican Party needs to address, he replied, “We’re no longer socially mobile … It is so un-American.” I’m not sure what Bush’s solutions would be, but he did identify the single most vexing structural problem that we face going forward: the stagnation and decline of the great American middle class, the creation of a permanent American underclass and oligarchy. It is something we desperately need to be talking about; it may be as crucial to the future of the Republic as the slavery debate was in the 19th century.

Of course, Bush’s ability to indulge in such big thinkery was immediately overwhelmed by a cheesy tactical blunder: he has co-authored a new book on immigration reform in which he proposes a path to legal residency for those who are here illegally. This represents a step backward from his traditional support for a path toward full-fledged citizenship–just as the more enlightened members of his party are taking a step forward toward that position. “We wrote this book last year, not this year,” he explained. Last year, the Republicans running for President were engaged in a pagan nativist purification ritual. Last year, his position might have been a teeny step forward for the party–but the book was scheduled to be published this year, making it seem as if Bush decided in 2012 to trim his sails for 2013, which smacked of rank politics on an important matter of principle.

The Jeb spectacle was yet another reminder that in American politics these days, small thoughts crush big ones. Tactics rule. We in the media focus on twigs rather than forests, and politicians give us plenty of twigs to snap. Even the legends among us, like Bob Woodward, are caught playing petty. Woodward wrongly accused Gene Sperling, the President’s economic adviser, of threatening him over Woodward’s assumption (also wrong) that the President had been “moving the goalpost” by asking for new revenue in the budget squabble. Woodward seemed frazzled by the mind-curdling intensity of tweets and television. And so was the economist Paul Krugman, who found his mouth saying that he favored even wasteful defense spending to boost the economy in a debate on Charlie Rose with the MSNBC host Joe Scarborough. (I mean, wouldn’t it be preferable to cut the payroll tax rather than build the F-35 fighter?)

Another guy who seems trapped in the thicket of tactics is Barack Obama. He played small from the start by suggesting the brain-dead across-the-board $85 billion budget cut–a.k.a. the sequester–that has now been visited upon us. It was a tactic to nudge the Republicans away from their desire to have the country go bankrupt, by refusing to raise the debt ceiling, in the summer of 2011. Another phony crisis: even as Republican-induced “bankruptcy” loomed, foreign buyers were feverishly snapping up U.S. bonds–we’re the safest investment on earth, despite our nitwit politics. The sequester has finally induced the President to try an intelligent path forward: he’s now soliciting the support of the Senate Republican Sanity Caucus–those who would favor getting us out of this mess through a deficit deal that includes revenue increases and long-term entitlement reforms. But why wasn’t he doing it months ago?

I am, currently, mystified by Obama. He’s won his second term. He’s liberated. He can play golf with Tiger Woods. But where’s the bold policy equivalent of a round with Tiger? His aides say he has to focus on the issues of the moment–sequester, immigration reform, gun control. Of course he does. But there is also a need to start the conversation about the next big thing.

The issue that Jeb Bush raised–the decline of social mobility–has the potential to open some crucial areas of discussion: How do we create middle-class jobs if our smartest young people flock toward casino gambling on Wall Street rather than inventing new products and building new companies? How do we really reform sclerotic, inefficient education, health care and regulatory systems? Intelligent politicians like Obama and Bush think about this stuff all the time. It would be nice if they could clear out the tactical rubbish and find a way to talk about it.

This article is featured in this week’s magazine.