Think back to last summer. George W. Bush's approval ratings stood near 60 percent. Iraq, a “mission” the president had famously declared “accomplished” aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln that May, was no paradise, but it was also not yet the political disaster it later became.
Democratic candidates, portrayed by the media as knock-kneed Barney Fifes, drawing straws to determine which one would face the unhappy chore of heading out into the noonday sun to duel the great gunslinger, scampered across America, brandishing credentials and smiles to audiences that, in the summer of 2003, were neither particularly large nor hopeful. One of those candidates, a senator from Massachusetts, seemed so distant a contender that the obligatory paragraph devoted to him in a round-up story invariably went something like this one, from The New York Times: “Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts had a second difficult night at a televised Democratic forum. As had occurred at a debate in South Carolina in May, he struggled with a hoarse, scratchy voice, a distraction from what his aides had hoped would be a commanding performance.”
What a difference a year makes.
The campaign-related articles and essays in this special issue of The American Prospect reflect the changes of the past year. The optimism now prevalent in progressive circles stems not only--or even chiefly--from President Bush's recent bad fortune. After all, such is the ineluctable power of the office that some of his bad fortune is also the world's, and we don't wish that; a paradoxical and hollow optimism that would be.
Rather, it stems also from a growing sense that Americans are worked up, and that they're worked up in defense of some old values--honest government, policy making based on fact rather than ideological assertion, a public sector that is the private sector's counterweight rather than its handmaiden--that had seemed for a time to have fallen out of favor. This issue of the Prospect is about the possibility of a new progressivism, and the movements that sustain it (see Garance Franke-Ruta's piece on the new generation of African American leadership, and Tara McKelvey's on the endlessly inventive group MoveOn.org). It roots around in the past for clues about how we got where we are: The acclaimed novelist Francisco Goldman shows us, through the eyes of José Martí, the uncanny relevance to today of the whisker-close election of 1884; and Richard Byrne delivers a provocative rethinking and defense of Lyndon Baines Johnson, arguing that the low esteem in which he's currently held by liberals says far more about the ways in which contemporary liberalism misuses its history than it does about Johnson himself.
And the future: Thomas Oliphant, the journalist who's known Kerry longer and better than any other in America--indeed, who was at Kerry's side as the veteran delivered his famous anti-war testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971--explains as only he could how Kerry got to this point, and what we can expect of him in the event he is elected. Are we presumptuous to wonder, as Harold Meyerson, Clay Risen, and Laura Secor do, how a President Kerry would, respectively, deal with Congress, use executive power, and fight the war on terrorism? We think not. And we have asked a group of distinguished thinkers and advocates--including John Podesta, Sean Wilentz, Deborah Tannen, Zbigniew Brzezinski, James MacGregor Burns, Jan Schakowsky, and Christopher Edley--how they would advise a President Kerry to reinvigorate progressive values in the public sphere. The speculation constitutes neither prediction nor endorsement; rather, it reflects a growing sense that America might be ready again, after four years during which day was called night and anyone who objected to the redesignation was dismissed as frivolous (or worse), for actual ideas, agendas, and--most of all--evidence.
Strange things have happened to this country these last four years. A great national tragedy, one that affected us all and took no note of matters like party identification, was first appropriated for partisan ends here at home, and later used as justification for an act of aggression whose logic led to a scandal, Abu Ghraib, that has brought our nation unqualified disgrace. But America always rethinks, reinvents, renews. This issue is about rethinking, reinvention, and renewal. In other words, it's about the America that has been--and can be.