There have been few Democratic candidates who have run for President over the last few decades that have not run on the platform of "bring us together."
Democrats are the great uniters, attempting to unite us all across lines of race, class, income, sexual orientation, whatever. It's an idea that has its appeal. We like to think of ourselves as one nation, disparate individuals and cultures brought together by the power of shared ideals, diverse elements united to a common purpose, e pluribus unum.
The master of this rhetoric was Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York who was touted several times as an odds-on favorite to sweep through the Democratic primaries and secure the nomination for President -- except that he never got past his own contradictory nature and so never left Albany -- at one point literally leaving the plane on the tarmac that was supposed to take him to Iowa to start his campaign.
Cuomo ruled by what he called the "poetry of politics." He came to prominence at the Democratic National Convention in 1984 where he gave a historic, stem-winding speech in which he excoriated the Reagan Administration for caring only about "millionaires" and portrayed the nation as a huge wagon train moving Westward:
Ever since Franklin Roosevelt lifted himself from his wheelchair to lift this nation from its knees -- wagon train after wagon train -- to new frontiers of education, housing, peace; the whole family aboard, constantly reaching out to extend and enlarge that family; lifting them up into the wagon on the way; blacks and Hispanics, and people of every ethnic group, and native Americans -- all those struggling to build their families and claim some small share of America.
Powerful rhetoric then, powerful rhetoric now. Not even the current occupant of the White House has ever really soared to that level in trying to portray his vision of America.
Yet what did Mario Cuomo actually accomplish in his three terms as governor? During his twelve-year tenure Mario Cuomo presided over the virtual evisceration of the New York State economy. He had no sense of how to achieve prosperity except to set up trade barriers and "share the wealth." At one point he suggested that only New York State wines be sold in grocery stores. He refused to buy bid-winning subway cars for New York City because they were made in Canada. When the New York Yankees threatened to leave the crime-ridden Bronx and move to New Jersey, Cuomo promised to "sell some bonds" and buy the team from George Steinbrenner -- probably not even realizing that "selling bonds" meant borrowing money. In the 1991-1992 recession, one out of every five jobs lost in America were in New York State.
Cuomo had absolutely no sense of institutions other than the state and needy individuals. He constantly invoked the "family" but his family was people leaning on the government. He had no sense of building the "little platoons" that Edmund Burke said were the foundation of civil society. In the midst of welfare reform he once remarked about 16-year-old welfare mothers, "If we get her in an apartment and get her going to school or earning money at a job, what's the problem?"
In 1990 I worked as a speechwriter on the ill-fated campaign of his Republican gubernatorial opponent Pierre Rinfret. On the staff we were constantly appalled at Governor Cuomo's economic ignorance. His ideas were almost Medieval. In one speech he recounted a conversation with his State Director of Economic Development, Vincent Tese, after a meeting with some Italian trade officials. "Hey Vincent, this is great. We make something, we sell it to them, they make something else, they sell it to us. This is good."
"It was like listening to your grandmother explain how the world works," commented one researcher.
At one point we had a bootlegged tape of Cuomo telling the state nominating convention, "We've just struck a deal with a British company that is going to build a brickyard in upstate New York." This was at the time California was building the new Information Economy in Silicon Valley. Andrew Cuomo, who was managing his father's campaign, carefully made the entire speech disappear so we never could get it on the record.
By the time Cuomo left office in 1994, people in upstate New York were selling their houses for less than they had paid for them thirty years earlier and New York City was being called "ungovernable." Only Rudy Giuliani's heroic rescue of New York City and the national welfare reform engineered by President Clinton and Congress in 1996 turned things around. Even so, while New York City managed to revive, upstate New York remains yoked in the "bring-us-together" syndrome, forced to live under City-inspired high taxes and suffocating regulations. As a separate entity, upstate New York is the 49th poorest of the 50 states.
So what's the lesson? While it's nice to "bring us together," it doesn't make any sense to bring us together in an undifferentiated mob. That's where all this all-for-one-and-one-for-all rhetoric usually ends up. You could see it last week in California when a charitable group from Tennessee tried to give away free health care in Southern California and found itself inundated by a mob it couldn't handle. That's just a preview of where President Obama's all-for-one-and-one-for-all health care reform is going to take us.
President Obama was elected on the bring-us-together premise of racial harmony. America would no longer be a nation divided along racial lines. It's a great ideal and I hope it happens. But being part of a racially harmonious society does not mean we want to surrender our individuality and our individual responsibilities. Making a living, educating ourselves, taking care of our health -- all of these we have to do for ourselves. We can't pile it all on "the government." Now, of course, not every individual is capable of taking care of himself and there should be plenty of room for exceptions and safety nets. But if we simply aggregate into one big mob and expect the government to provide us all with "health care we can afford," we're going to end up with less than we have now.
As Ortega y Gassett put it in The Revolt of the Masses, "When there's a shortage of bread, the first thing people do is burn down the bakeries." Now that health insurance has been defined as the "problem," the first thing the Democrats are inviting us to do is burn down the insurance companies. What else is Nancy Pelosi angling for when she tells us that Obama's health plan will eliminate the insurance companies' insufferable "co-payments." (Under three different plans, the most I've ever co-paid for visiting a doctor's office is $20. I pay the plumber $75 to come to my house and inspect the pipes.) Once the insurance companies are in smolders, what comes next? Hospitals and doctor's offices, perhaps?
Everybody's been celebrating Woodstock this weekend and as the primal gathering of peace, love and harmony -- and it was indeed perhaps the most orderly, tolerant, and good-natured mob in history. All the "freaks" of the 1960s suddenly found themselves in like company and a moment of cultural self-recognition. The good vibes lasted for three whole days and became the founding event of a counterculture that still believes the world can live in greater peace and harmony.
But mobs get restless, even in the best of circumstances. It was only four months after Woodstock that an ad hoc police force of Hell's Angels killed a crazed gunman at Altamont. After that, free outdoor concerts quickly degenerated into unruly events that often ended in violence. Notice they don't give them anymore, either. When Bruce Springsteen plays the Meadowlands, he charges $75 a head and up.
And so, in the healthcare debate, the time has come to draw the line between universal brotherhood and individual responsibility. Bring us together, Mr. President, but leave us room to lead our own personal lives as well.
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