During this presidential campaign, Barack Obama and John McCain have each spent a great deal of time talking about their dreams for the 21st century. And they have worked to persuade voters that the policies they would implement would achieve that dream, ushering in a golden future. Nothing surprising in that. Political campaigns are usually cast in the future tense.

I want to suggest, however, that these are the wrong terms in which to evaluate our electoral choices in November. Like other Presidential elections in American history that came at a moment of national crisis, 2008 will likely be a referendum on what has happened during the preceding eight years, not on what McCain or Obama promise for the future. Obama has already begun to sound that note. “Eight is enough,” he declared during his August 28 acceptance speech.

Elections: Is the Past or Future at Stake?

To listen to political pundits talk, one might think that we are able to predict the consequences of proposed civic policies—that we can verify with certainty that they are good or bad, and vote for the political party whose policies promise the best outcome. But if we had any way to make such calculations—if we had such an actual science of politics—heated disputes on the issues would not exist.

In truth, of course, on many key public questions it is more than likely that roughly 50% of Americans will disagree with the other 50%. Why would we think that these disagreements could be resolved by objective, cognitive appraisal? What would make us think that one side was right, or that the notion of who was right could have much meaning? We simply can’t know that certain policies pursued today will yield predictable or desirable results tomorrow. In this sense, we have often cast our election-year debates in the wrong terms.

Each party in the American system has a personality that differs from the other. Republicans and Democrats have different attitudes that their politicians reflect. These alternative (if frequently similar) convictions consist of visions of far-off goals, a moral ethos about the worth of these goals, abiding claims concerning their fittedness for our social order, and expectations for apocalyptic victory.

The polity of the United States provides rich benefits for its citizens, a large measure of domestic stability, and security in foreign policy. But it is largely mysterious to me what conditions have given us such a political culture and how we have continued to guarantee its advantages. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we really don’t know how the structure successfully grew up, or what the mechanisms are that give it an effective energy. In fact, in the absence of any real explanation, people often resort to the providential and say the country is “blessed,” or that God “shed his grace” on us.

Conservatives have traditionally demanded less of the political system. They have aimed to preserve the principles that, they believe, have gotten us the benefits. Liberals have asked for more. Somehow, they think, civic life can progress, and the political struggle can empower those who can secure progress.

This belief developed because progressive Democrats at the end of the nineteenth century absorbed into their framework of principles the ideas of modernizing Protestants. For these Protestants, God was not so much a supernatural creature but was immanent in our social life, and evidence for this reality was the upward swing of civilization. Over the twentieth century this religious notion moved into the secular realm of liberal politics.

We should surely try to bring our good fortune more under our control. But we need also to realize that we have little power over it, and that we have limited means for nudging it positively. In such circumstances, we should be satisfied with a more minimal notion of what politicians and parties can accomplish, and what they ought to be accountable for.

The Hippocratic Oath of Politics

For a moment forget the prospects for improvement, and focus on holding on to what we have. Since we have not made much of an advance on formulating an American political science that can predict the future, we should do our best—sort of blindly staggering around—to try to insure that we don’t make things worse. This is more than a platitude, for we have no guarantees that we can fix what we have spoiled. The primary rule of politics, like the oath taken by doctors, needs to be: Do no harm.

We often talk about the “ship of state” so let’s put this the way the navy does: Not on my watch. This old adage roughly translates into the injunction to those who have responsibility for a ship to keep it on course. When you have that sort of responsibility, your shipmates are depending on you, and you don’t want anything to go wrong that you could have avoided had you been diligent. “It didn’t happen on my watch” is a common denial of blame. “Not on my watch,” similarly, asserts vigilance and a resolve not to make things worse off than they have been. In the military in general, if something goes awry, someone is accountable (or at least someone will be blamed or punished for it).

Here is my minimalist notion of the way American democratic politics does its job. The role of the electorate is to punish the politicians who mess up on their watch (even if the messes aren’t entirely their faults).

1932 = 1968

We have two outstanding twentieth-century examples of this punishment function at work during moments of national crisis.

In the election of 1932, the electorate voted the Republican Herbert Hoover decisively out of office and replaced him with Democrat Franklin Roosevelt. In 1928 Hoover and his party had taken credit for the prosperity of the 1920s, and at the end of Hoover’s term citizens blamed him for the Great Depression that had engulfed the United States from late 1929 on. The public also felt that Hoover’s efforts over three years to alleviate the economic suffering had been unavailing.

We don’t know that Republican policies created the boom economy of the 1920s, and we don’t know if other policies than the ones Hoover implemented would have created jobs and credit. For his years in office from 1929 to 1933, when The Crash occurred, Hoover may just have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We do know that at a slightly later time, the different policies of the Roosevelt administration did little to control the economic downturn. The Democrats under Roosevelt did not do much better than Hoover and the Republicans, at least at the level of economic policies. FDR did, however, brilliantly capture the shift in the national mood. His personality, and the personality of the party he re-shaped in his image, better matched the nation’s than Hoover’s.

If the electorate had not ousted the Republicans, they would not have been forced to take political responsibility for violating the “do no harm” principle. There is a lot of evidence in Hoover’s many reflections about his administration and the election of 1932 that he recognized how and why he was being sacrificed, even though Hoover thought it horribly unfair. No matter. The ship of state foundered when Republicans were in power. Thus, fairly or unfairly, Republicans bore responsibility for the crisis and Hoover was out.

The election of 1968 is the other stunning example of the penalty attached to breaking the “do no harm” rule. That year Republicans eked out a much smaller victory against the entrenched Democrats. There were a lot of issues at play in 1968 but the central one was foreign policy in Southeast Asia, and Richard Nixon was the narrow winner over Hubert Humphrey.

Nixon believed that the 1960s were the era of the big promise. In eight years of rule by John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, Democrats had pledged that the nation could end poverty, eliminate ancient racial attitudes, destroy totalitarian evil, and correct the abuses of capitalism.

Instead the United States had riot, discord, and a vicious war in Vietnam. Nixon detested the Democratic policy makers of the 1960s, and effectively if not very subtlety conveyed his contempt to the voters. The important matter for the electorate was to repudiate the arrogance of liberal politicians whose plans had gone off course in far-off Vietnam.

Did Nixon reason unfairly? Of course he did, but no one could deny that the Democrats had power when matters became unhinged. We can’t tell if the Republicans would have governed with more restraint than the Democrats in the 1960s, and Nixon’s management of the war from 1969 to 1973 was hardly more humane than Johnson’s from 1965 to 1968.

But in the 1960s President Johnson and the men around him had taken the train off the rails. There is some indication that Johnson realized this, although he did not blame himself. Rather, he blamed his national security advisors, whom he called, with a mixture of awe and distaste, “the Harvards.” In any event, Johnson knew enough to step down from a run in 1968.

The Nixon victory in 1968 showed that the political system worked, despite all that would come later during the Nixon administration. If the Democrats had escaped electoral punishment despite the Vietnam War in 1968, they too would have avoided taking political responsibility for a national crisis. In repudiating the Democrats, the electorate displayed wisdom. And, yes, we don’t know that Nixon did better than Humphrey would have. I bet that many readers of Origins probably did not vote in 1968. I did and voted for Humphrey. I was wrong. The political system was smarter than I was.

1932 = 1968 ? 1948

A counter example might be useful here. What happens if the system does not work—if it fails to punish those in power? In 1948 Democrat Harry Truman surprised the United States when he was elected president. As Franklin Roosevelt’s third Vice President, Truman was an unknown who ascended to the presidency when Roosevelt died in 1945. He then accidentally presided over the end of World War II, and while the nation celebrated victory in August, 1945, it settled quickly into an anxious peace. The beginnings of the Cold War, the fear of nuclear weapons, and events happening in places like Greece left the country profoundly uneasy.

In 1948 Truman was weak and unpopular, and the Democrats had been in power for sixteen years. The people thought he was over his head in the job and did not trust him. Yet Truman managed a squeaky success over New York Republican Governor, Thomas Dewey.

The close call was the best Truman could do. From 1949 to 1953, his approval ratings went steadily down hill, and his administration was involved in a series of scandals and ruled ineffectively at home. More important, after brief victories in a confined conflict in Korea, Truman made a reckless and catastrophic decision to unify that nation under American influence. He was repeatedly warned that he would bring China into a larger war, which he did. By November of 1952, the United States was engaged in a humiliating struggle in Asia that was the chief occasion for the election of Dwight Eisenhower.

We don’t know that Dewey and the Republicans would have done better from 1948 to 1953 than the Truman administration actually did. But the Republicans hardly could have done worse. Had Dewey won, a man many liberals believed to have greater ability than Eisenhower would have been in charge in the 1950s. Had the Korean War occurred, it might have been more readily contained by someone like Dewey—and Dewey, more clearly, would have contained Joe McCarthy, who arose during the fag-end of the Truman presidency and who feasted on Democratic weaknesses.

Truman was shamed out of office in 1952. Many people had “had enough” of the Democrats in 1948, and the break-down of the “Do no harm” rule did not serve the nation well. Truman should have been dismissed in 1948.

2008?

The good news is that these lessons indicate what should happen in November of 2008. We don’t know that the team of Gore and Lieberman would have pursued less unfortunate policies than the Bush-Cheney Republicans. We don’t have much evidence the Republicans conducted themselves with greater irresponsibility than the Democrats would have.

For all the current president’s missteps, does anyone think that Bush deliberately tried to get the United States into an unwinnable war in Iraq and to upend the American economy? Can we be sure that Democrats would have navigated the shoals of foreign and domestic policy to better outcomes than exist today?

Likewise, we have no real way of knowing whether Obama will do better than McCain in sorting out the problems one or the other will inherit. (I personally am convinced that Republicans are probably more able to bring the fighting in the Middle East to some kind of conclusion than the Democrats. They are untried, while the Republicans have the edge of having experienced hands and a set of policies in place.)

No matter. The ship of state is in a fix. The logic of presidential politics is that the party in power pays. They had the deck. If they get it wrong on their watch, they have to go. Unless the Republicans are held accountable now, they are in for life, or we are in for even bigger trouble in the next four years.

Six months ago the question of whether Obama or Clinton was the superior choice struck me as beside the point. To be sure, there are differences in their personalities and policies, but the imperative then was: choose any Democrat. What is the best reason for voting for Obama? He is not a Republican; he bears no political responsibility for our national crisis.

Who knows if he will perform more creditably? Indeed, Obama is an empty vessel into which the American people can be expected to pour their inexhaustible supply of hope—in just the same way that they did in 1932 and at other moments when they wisely applied the “do no harm” principle.