Symposium | Halfway Home?

No Corner to Turn

By Leslie Gelb

Tagged DemocratsElectionsRepublicans

I don’t believe I’ve ever been associated with the pessimistic school of American history. Much to my great sadness, I belong there now.

Over the course of my long career in public policy, there was never a time when I didn’t feel good policies could be framed and that they could work—and that there were actually people who could do the framing and get the jobs done. All this has deteriorated so badly, perhaps since the early days of Bill Clinton.

First and foremost, experienced and very smart people are needed to frame strategy. The Democrats have waned in that ability for many decades now. I’d even argue that the Republicans and the neocons are doing a better job than the Democrats of saying what the problems are and how to deal with them. Now, in the foreign policy sphere, the Democrats do have very able people like Jake Sullivan, Michele Flournoy, Mike Froman, and Tony Blinken. But alas they weren’t given the chance to work with mentors like Clark Clifford and Henry Kissinger.

Then, of course, come the ideas and strategies and policies. These can’t be simply wishes and dreams. To be effective and to catch the public’s eye, they must be tough-minded, practical, and convincing. Forgive me, but I don’t see much of this around either.

I am not saying we should give up. Heavens no. I am insisting that the job ahead is far, far more difficult than the writings and speeches of our fine contemporaries. Their seniors and mentors, to the extent they’re still around, should hold them to a higher standard and, of course, they themselves must push themselves beyond where they have been.

The Democrats can’t save themselves through Trump’s outlandish stupidity. He’s got almost half the country with him, despite his ignorance, and they will stay with him through the next election. Nor will the public sit still for long-winded explanations of why they should get rid of Trump. If the Democrats are to have any impact over the next couple of years, they’ve got to be inventive and creative in coming up with phrases and sentences that knock the ball out of the park. It’s the only way to injure Trump. Nothing else will get through to the public. So far, Democrats have imagined only boring, run-on sentences.

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Leslie Gelb is a former correspondent and columnist for The New York Times and a former senior of official in the State and Defense departments. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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