Our natural realm here at Democracy is politics. Not in the capital-P, "can the Senate pass cap-and-trade?" sense. We leave that to others. We mean politics in the sense that our pieces mostly address ideas and policy issues that are typically settled in the political realm. From innovation, the subject of the symposium in our last issue, to the economy to health care to foreign policy and beyond, most of the problems we raise in these pages require first and foremost political solutions.
But not every piece does–or should. Take this issue’s cover piece. The quandaries in the realm of higher education so compellingly described by Kevin Carey might eventually benefit from some kind of congressional intervention, which he describes. But the real solutions to the problem that concerns him–why so many universities aren’t teaching well, and why they just don’t seem to care very much–must come from the institutions themselves, which he likens not to any other modern institutions but to ancient churches that "cherish their priests and mysteries."
Carey argues, in sum, that the college rankings are bunk, the transparent spin of cheapjacks who are measuring only reputation, not actual performance. He suggests, instead, that potential students and their parents be given an entirely new set of numbers, which measure things like (heaven forbid) how well and how much students learn at college. Such statistics exist, Carey tells us–they’re just not made public. The reason? The most powerful lobby in Washington you’ve never heard of. It’s a piece that will spark a badly needed debate and force institutions to answer some questions they’d rather avoid.
This issue is full of interesting provocations: Matthew Cooper’s argument for Bill Clinton as a politician of principle, Amy Wilentz’s illuminating reflections on whether disasters bring out the best or worst in us. But we’d be remiss not to draw your attention, not long after Ted Kennedy’s passing, to Tom Oliphant’s review of the late senator’s memoir, True Compass, and assessment of his career. Oliphant, the veteran Washington journalist who spent years writing for the Boston Globe, knew Kennedy for some four decades, but he reports his delight and astonishment at learning new things about the man, like how driven Kennedy was by social-gospel Catholicism. Citing Kennedy’s reference to a passage from the Book of Matthew, Oliphant writes, "Kennedy did not talk like that outside his family until this book." Oliphant is not only a veteran Kennedy-watcher, but a veteran Senate-watcher. His piece stands also as an assessment of that vexatious institution–the abode of several towering figures when Kennedy entered it in 1963 but for the most part the habitat of a somewhat lesser species today.
As I write these words in late October 2009, we’ve spent about five months watching the Senate tie itself up in knots on health care. Perhaps it will have ended by the time you read this, perhaps not. If we’re lucky, it will transform American public health for the better; if we get what we deserve, having elected successively less capable representatives, we will get a bureaucratic mishmash, the product not of clear-eyed policy thinking but undirected political horse-trading. Whatever the case, the debate certainly would have benefited from Kennedy’s presence–though it’s still sad to think that, if passage is achieved, he so narrowly missed seeing it happen.