The Trouble With Optimism
Everyone agreed during the recent Reaganalia that one of Ronald Reagan’s best qualities was optimism. For Reagan’s longtime supporters, optimism is a key element in the official hagiography. He lifted the atmosphere of doom and “malaise” perpetrated by his predecessor, Jimmy Carter. For those who did not especially admire the late president when he was alive, this was something nice they could say in all sincerity on the occasion of his death, instead of or as an introduction to what they really thought of him.
Reagan’s death took what was already a festival of optimism in American politics and turned it into an orgy. Optimism has long been on every short list of “quintessentially American” qualities. After Reagan’s two sweeping victories, it became a great cliche of political analysis as well: The more optimistic candidate almost always wins.
This insight is like those studies showing that the taller presidential candidate almost always wins (the 2004 election will be an interesting test of that one), with the crucial difference that you can’t do much about your height. By contrast, you can ladle on the optimism all you want. Thanks to Reagan, optimism is now considered an essential ingredient of any presidential candidate’s public self-presentation.
They all say they have it; their opponents accuse them of lacking it. A typical American politician would sooner admit to being a bigamist than a pessimist.
The climactic TV commercial in President Bush’s spring saturation bombing campaign against Sen. John Kerry is titled “Pessimism” and begins with Bush declaring, “I’m optimistic about America because I believe in the people of America” -- a sentiment that would work equally well the other way around (“I believe in the people of America because I’m optimistic about America”). The ad then attempts to out Kerry as a pessimist, based on the fact that he talks about the Great Depression. “One thing’s sure,” Bush’s ad notes. “Pessimism never created a job.” Meanwhile, Kerry is running an ad titled “Optimists,” asserting that he is as optimistic as the next guy.
Could there be an emptier claim made on behalf of someone hoping to lead the United States of America than to say that he is “optimistic”? Optimism may or may not be part of the American character, but it is pretty insufficient as either a campaign promise or a governing principle. If the objective situation calls for optimism, being optimistic isn’t much of a trick or a distinction. If the objective situation calls for something closer to pessimism, the last thing we want is some Micawber whistling past the Treasury Department.
It’s a bit of a cheat for the incumbent to accuse his opponent of pessimism. By the very nature of elections, the side in power is going to argue that things are going well, and the side in opposition is going to argue that things are going badly. It is awfully convenient for the side in power if the canons of optimism forbid any assertion that things are going badly -- even if they are. That, of course, is the whole idea of Bush’s optimism offensive. Kerry has brought up the Great Depression in order to point out that Bush, as of now, is the first president since then to suffer a net loss of jobs. Bush says the important issue here isn’t the loss of jobs, or even the truth of Kerry’s statement (which he doesn’t challenge), but the very reference itself.
No one starts out as an incumbent. In 1980, even Reagan saw bleakness and defeat everywhere. (It wasn’t until 1984 that he produced those “Morning in America” ads.) The greatest alleged success of Reagan’s presidency -- victory in the Cold War -- is widely misrepresented as a triumph of optimism. Even if you credit Reagan for that victory (which I don’t), the rhetorical theme of his military buildup was pessimism, not optimism. It wasn’t that communism just needed one last push, it was that communism was triumphing throughout the world. Democracy was in peril. The Soviets were on the verge of nuclear superiority. Complacency -- misplaced optimism -- is what the Reaganites accused their critics of.
As recently as the 2000 election, today’s President George W. Sunshine was eager to spread pessimism and gloom. And, apparently, he remained optimism-deficient until recently. What else can explain the job losses of his first three years as president?
We don’t want a president who sees the silver lining in every cloud. We want a president who sees the cloud and dispels it. We want someone who will make the objective situation justify optimism, not someone who is optimistic in any objective situation. If optimism is hard-wired into the American character, it should be especially important to have someone sober at the wheel of the car. Of course such clearheadedness is a hopeless ideal. But it is odd that politicians of every stripe now feel the need to promise that their vision will be clouded.
And if forced to choose between a leader whose vision is clouded by optimism and one clouded by pessimism, there is a good case that pessimism is the more prudent choice. Another name for pessimism is a tragic sensibility. It is a vivid awareness that things can go wrong, and often have done so. An optimist thinks he can pop over to Iraq, knock Saddam Hussein off his perch, establish democracy throughout the Middle East and be home in time for dinner. A pessimist knows better.
Michael Kinsley is the Editorial and Opinion editor of The Times. His weekly column, which begins today, will ordinarily appear on Fridays.