Do Familiar Headlines Mean Change Is Impossible?

December 19, 2012

It’s easy as you get older to look at the front page and think you’ve seen every headline before. In today's Washington Post are stories on the negotiations over the federal budget, displeasure about Israeli settlements, and an analysis of the gun control debate. Change the names and move the decimal points, and all of those articles would have fit comfortably on the front page of any American newspaper in 1975. So reading them in the wrong state of mind leaves you with the feeling that we’ve gotten nowhere.

But a closer look at each of those issues shows that real progress is possible. Start with the tax and spending negotiations between the President and Congress. On one level, this sounds like Obama and Boehner are engaged in a partisan struggle identical to Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill or Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. The same tired arguments, leaving us with the same yawning deficits. But the last example shows that dramatic progress is possible with an aggressive and balanced approach. The eventual Clinton budget led to a surplus, with extra money slated to pay down the national debt. Those debt clocks you saw at the Republican convention this year would have been running backwards if we stayed on that path. Soon after, we saw that returning to bad choices – huge tax cuts and unfunded entitlement spending under George W. Bush -- can put us back in the old negative cycle. But in both cases the important lesson is that even if the arguments are familiar, the options we ultimately choose can make a big difference.

The same is true on foreign and social policy issues, like the Middle East and gun control. The Arabs and Israelis are still failing to make peace, making even older and more tired arguments for their cause. But that doesn’t mean the Middle East is the same as it ever was. Palestinians now have a government and, despite the rhetoric, work with the Israelis on all sorts of practical matters. Egypt is in the midst of a revolution, and Syria is locked in a civil war. Both outcomes are uncertain, but one thing we know is the Middle East will not be the same.

Gun control is one of the hardest domestic issues to move, given the safe conservative districts of many Republican members of the House. But the broader issue of crime shows that dramatic transformation is possible. In the 1970s, urban decline seemed inevitable, and the crack-fueled crime of the 80s felt like a downward spiral. Back then, a social scientist would have had his PhD revoked if he claimed the murder rate in New York City in 2009 would be lower than it was in 1964. The more accepted vision was an Escape for New York dystopia of crime lords and gloomy lighting.

All of this is not to say there aren’t also negative trends, and shocking setbacks. That reality was on sickening display this week. But history shows we do have the power to make positive change.

Check here for regular observations on politics and history, as well as new clips from The Bigger Hammer.  Follow@TheBiggerHammer on Twitter to find out when new excerpts are released and where you’ll be able to see the whole film.

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