After the Nixon Moment Came the Carter Moment, Then the Reagan Empire

05/25/2011 11:45 am ET

David Wallechinsky's fine post on these pages (Is a Nixon Moment on the Horizon?) calls Republicans to their consciences over their President's abuses of power. Republicans may yet have a "Nixon moment," but Democrats should remember what came after that - a short Carter moment, followed by 12 years of GOP Empire.

The Carter Moment was that brief period in recent history when decency and democratic (small-"d') values returned to the White House. It didn't last, because the Republicans recognized their problem, reorganized, and counterattacked. Democrats couldn't clearly articulate what they stood for, and the result was twelve years of Republican Presidencies.

The real beneficiary of America's disenchantment with Nixon and Watergate was Ronald Reagan. By enacting the myth of the frontiersman, the decent and all-powerful Man on a Horse, he allowed voters to purge their national trauma through a kind of psychodrama. It helped psychologically, but none of it was real.

Conservatives and Republicans are no doubt holding "auditions" for the next Reagan. Democrats, bereft of a message and unwilling to state plain truths about war, diplomacy, and the economy, are providing a vacuum which some smart conservative politician will be happy to fill.

Reagan's Presidency was riddled with ethical conflicts, but the press and the nation were tired of talking about scandal - so much so that Reagan's Vice President was able to win the Presidency despite being implicated in Iran/Contra. Why should the future be any different from the past? Democrats think this is their time -- a chance to win back power without having to face the frightening prospect of telling the truth to the American people.

Guess again. Nixon and Watergate begat Reagan and Bush I, who in turn begat the Gingrich Congress and the Supreme-Court assisted Bush Presidency. Let's hope Harry Reid and his cohorts continue to have their moments of clarity, as they did yesterday. Otherwise, those who don't study the past - or lack the courage to act on what they've learned - will be doomed to repeat it.