A year ago, in lieu of resolutions or predictions, I offered a more guarded set of wishes for the new calendar year. Could the track record have been worse? There was the melancholy: Mandela no longer lives; while George H.W. Bush survives, his conciliatory brand of leadership is discredited in his own and seems impossible to revive nationally. There was the embarrassingly off base: describing Virginia’s likely soon to be indicted Bob McDonnell as a politician without a single ethical blemish, and a much too laudatory take on the Washington Redskins’ Robert Griffin III were the low points.
There were rosy hopes that didn’t pan out: some of my favorite center-right thinkers have added a lot of wisdom to the internal Republican debate without influencing it very much; Atlanta’s Mayor Kasim Reed, rather than soaring, is the latest southern black politician whose ambitions suffer the limitations of his party’s “electability” mantra; and Bobby Jindal is a much longer presidential shot now than he appeared 12 months ago.
And there were the parts that really made my label of “wishful thinking” unintended irony. Let’s just say that Phil Robertson isn’t the principled voice of federalism on same sex marriage that I had in mind; that the Heritage Foundation’s assault on food stamps is not quite the anti-poverty agenda I was hoping for; and that education reform continues to lie in the overstocked, undersold column on aisle 32.
(1) That a year from now, some Republican has decided to run for President unabashedly as a center-right alternative, with policy ideas and campaign message to match. Whether that individual is Chris Christie, the most successful coalition builder in big league politics today, or Paul Ryan, who should keep channeling his former mentor Jack Kemp’s vision that upward mobility is a legitimate conservative aspiration, or someone to be named later, it would be to the good of Republicans and domestic politics in general if a presidential level Republican owned the notion of a vital center rather than running from it.
(2) That George Packer’s superb “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America” follow up its National Book Award with a Pulitzer. One can take issue with Packer for skimping on the fine points of economics, or for staying vague on solutions, but this is the most gripping account that has emerged of what the guts of the country looked like in the depths of the Great Recession. He nails the development of alienation that has eroded normal ideological boundaries. And if Packer’s subtle narrative maneuver of reducing national politics to the margins seemed incomplete to critics, it surely captures how the swamp on the Potomac registered to most rank and file Americans.
(3) That Robert Caro’s last volume on Lyndon Johnson’s life happens expeditiously, and that it lives up to the size of his subject and the promise of the first four volumes. Caro may have lingered too long over his hero/villain, but he has produced the most elegant, perceptive, cliche free writing on any American politician in my lifetime.
(4) That the Fox News wing of the political right retire its weakness for cultural resentment. Yes, there are real enough examples of food stamp fraud, even a single street gang assault on whites is one too many, and the left is much too quick to call ordinary conservatives Obama hating racists. But the dominant cable news network makes a caricature of itself when it spends airtime defending the whiteness of Santa or fearing the imminence of riots if poverty programs are cut. Is it race baiting, as many blacks and liberals suspect? If something looks like it, sounds like it, and resents like it, a makeover is in order.
(5) That John Kasich becomes a more influential Republican voice. There are the Republican governors who determine that opposition to Obamacare requires across the board resistance to every subsection of it, there are the nine GOP governors who have accepted the expansion of Medicaid and the federal dollars that come with it as a reasonable tradeoff, and there is Governor Kasich of Ohio. Kasich is refreshingly assertive not just about the math but the fact that insuring low wage adults is not fundamentally at odds with conservatism or limited government. Listen carefully to Kasich, and you hear what populism sounds like when it is not infused with anger or smoldering identity politics.
(6) That the Republican leadership in the House take the politically smart, substantively wise step of embracing the Dream Act as a Republican version of immigration reform. For many conservatives, the least defensible case for a comprehensive immigration overhaul is the tendency to treat citizenship more as a concession to electoral demographics than as an earned responsibility. The Dream Act’s focus on citizenship for college graduates addresses that sensibility and might spare Republicans the impression of animosity to multi-culturalism that is hardening in the minds of young Latinos and millenials of all races.
(7) That Paul Greengrass’s much touted screenplay on Martin Luther King’s final months, “Memphis” turns into a full-fledged production. The director of the film that should win the Oscar for Best Picture, “Captain Phillips”, deserves the first serious crack at a biopic on King, given the taut excellence of his past work and the word of mouth around the screenplay in Hollywood circles. A version of King that does not falsely sanitize him would actually underscore his greatness, and that is exactly what Greengrass is likely to provide.
(8) That Netflix’s “House of Cards” thrives in its second season, and achieves the Emmy’s dominance it deserves. The series may not be doing the culture a service by elevating binge viewing to the level of respectability (is “one more and I will stop” ever a good thing?) but it is single-handedly establishing that politics can be fine drama without the hyper ventilation or wild improbability of ABC’s “Scandal”. And in that same vein, I will add one of the most implausible hopes in this column: that a serious, respected African American writer will take on “Scandal” for the insults at its core: among them, the suggestion that a gorgeous, credentialed black woman like Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope would be fated for a lonely, friendless existence in which her only plausible suitors are white men, as well the complete dearth of other positive black female depictions on a show that is so self conscious about its glass ceiling shattering. (Until season 3, the only non-Pope black women who had gotten real air time were the mistress and hapless wife of a dead minister; and alas, the find of season 3, Pope’s presumed dead mother, has just been exposed as a global terrorist).
(9) That 2014 marks the resumption of Tiger Woods’ march toward the record of 18 Grand Slam tournaments: he has been stalled at 14 since 2008. It’s a wish made not out of any reverence for Woods, who even prior to his personal life unraveling, had the air of an entitled prince too indifferent to even feign a real interest in charity or the diversity of his sport. But golf’s current veneer of bland parity does not compare with the charismatic aura of Woods at his exhilarating peak. And in fairness, the statute of limitations has long run on Woods’ status as the one serially philandering athlete punished for his deeds.
(10) That the Sochi Winter Olympics are memorable only for the things that always define Olympics, and that two days of low grade terrorist attacks in Russia aren’t a prelude to something more spectacular. One gets a disconcerting feeling that the best hope for Sochi is that the name is not on our mind six months from now.