Making Lemonade

One of my all-time favorite editorial cartoons appeared a couple of days after the 2004 Presidential election; it showed a dejected John Kerry standing next to a barn, gazing at what appeared to be a large pile of manure. The caption read: “This could all have been mine!”

As I write this, four years later, Americans are trying decide who to trust with a pile that has grown much, much bigger.

The next President will take office at a time when our most basic institutions are broken. The litany is familiar to all of us: we are bogged down in two wars, one of which we had no business waging. Our enemies are reveling in our troubles; our allies are bewildered by our incompetence. The economy is tanking. We increasingly rely on China to buy our debt, which means that China now owns a substantial portion of America. Our infrastructure is crumbling. We haven’t rebuilt New Orleans, or other places devastated by natural disasters for which we were unprepared. Healthcare is increasingly unaffordable. The checks and balances we learned about in government class are a distant memory, and the U.S. Constitution—the document that has shaped our culture and made us the envy of people around the world—lies in tatters.

It is really hard to believe that so much damage could be done in just eight years. Other administrations have made poor policy choices, been fiscally irresponsible, and elevated people unequal to their tasks.  But none has wreaked this much havoc on the nation.

One result of this wholesale devastation is that Americans have lost confidence in the integrity of our common social and legal institutions—and partially as a result, have become increasingly distrustful of each other. Repairing that trust—in our institutions and our neighbors—may be the biggest challenge we face; in its absence, we can only go so far in solving our collective problems. (The recent bailout negotiations are a case in point.) 

The sobering question that confronts us is whether any President, any Administration, can stem the bleeding and put this nation back on the long and difficult path to competent governance, fiscal sanity and the rule of law.

The realist in me says the prospects are grim. The Pollyanna in me (yes, she’s still there!) says that every challenge is an opportunity, that when you make lemonade, you start with lemons.

With proper leadership, we could use this time as an opportunity to learn from our mistakes and remake our country. We could reach back into our national psyche, and rediscover the sources of our strength and productivity. We could recognize and act upon the truth that it will take all of us working together to reclaim our heritage and mend our broken institutions.

The “usual suspects”—campaign strategists, spin doctors, and talking heads—are busy shilling and selling. This year, we need to ignore them all and ask ourselves one simple question: which candidate is most likely to help Americans make lemonade?