So, whaddya' do -- as we said in Brooklyn all those years ago-- once you win?
I have been contemplating this question my entire life. It has come packaged in narrow victories and narrow defeats, one-sided blowouts, and tragic mistakes, professional decisions and personal challenges. There is no formulaic response that works.
Thomas Jefferson once said that "Great innovations should not be forced on slender majorities." His own victory in 1800 had come after a near-revolutionary decade long battle between Federalists embracing Alexander Hamilton's vision of a commerce driven and centrally financed new Atlantic power and Democratic-Republicans opting for Jefferson's picture of America as a forever idyllic agricultural nation of yeomen farmers on lands stretching westward. The election was close. Jefferson won eight states to Adams's seven. In fact, the only reason Jefferson won was that the Constitution's three-fifth's clause artificially inflated the populations of slave states and thus gave them more electoral votes than they otherwise would have received.
(The election was also complicated by a technical -- and later corrected -- flaw in how votes in the Electoral College were assigned to Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates. At that time electors cast two ballots for President, after which the candidate with the most votes became President and the second most became Vice President. In 1800, both Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, received identical votes for President in the Electoral College, even though everyone knew Jefferson had been the candidate for President. The election was then thrown into the House of Representatives, where Burr made a play for the top job; it was decided in Jefferson's favor only after thirty-five votes in the House, and -- ironically -- Hamilton ultimately supporting Jefferson. Hamilton thought it better to elect a man, Jefferson, with whose principles he disagreed, rather than one, Burr, who he thought had none.)
In any case, thus was born Jefferson's admonition.
Which others throughout our history have often seized upon.
President Kennedy regularly quoted Jefferson when his Administration was criticized for its minimal to non-existent progress on civil rights. His Presidency too had been a product of a "slender majority," a good portion of which came from southern states not remotely enamored of civil rights. More than forty years later, Jefferson's words were again unearthed by those arguing that Obamacare should not be passed in an an environment where the Senate was more or less evenly split.
Kennedy temporized, at least until southern sheriffs unleashed dogs and water cannons on black kids, at which point he damned the politics and extemporaneously spoke of civil rights as a moral issue. Obama, however, didn't. He passed the Affordable Care Act with -- as Donald Rumsfeld might put it -- the majority he had, however slender.
Who was right?
Jefferson himself did not have an easy time following his own advice. He did, after all, authorize the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon without any Congressional vote or apparent Constitutional authority, more than doubling the size of the country with a stroke of the pen and -- not coincidentally -- materially advancing his own vision of a farm-led America. Though Lincoln fought the initial years of the Civil War by, in practice, making the Jeffersonian warning an adjunct to his lawyer-trained disposition (he famously told Horace Greeley that he'd save the Union any way he could -- by ending slavery, allowing it to continue in the states where it existed, or freeing some while others remained enslaved), he later took great risks -- to wit, the Emancipation Proclamation -- and suffered great losses -- more than 600,000 Union dead -- in the face of diminishing electoral prospects.
Perhaps Franklin Roosevelt was the best practitioner when it comes to the Jeffersonian admonition. As he fought the Great Depression during his first and second term, he proposed and passed extraordinary innovations on the back of enormous majorities. In the run up to World War II, however, when the country was still isolationist and his own internationalism could not be advanced merely as a function of his enduring popularity, he temporized, educating without committing as Europe erupted. Ultimately, it worked and later, in fashioning a United Nations, it worked again.
We appear now to be in a period of perpetually slender majorities.The American Congress is more or less split and will still be after this November's mid-terms, regardless of the technical outcome. Europe's austerians somehow survive in the face of adherence to a policy that has utterly failed to generate the necessary growth. Separatists movement wax and wane, the latest in Scotland where a decisive victory for continued membership in the UK carried with it the reality that 45% of the people (and a majority of the young) wanted out. There is unmitigated tribalism in the Middle East and, as a consequence, uncertain alliances whose majorities -- slender or otherwise -- cannot even be calculated. Religiously fueled divisions and hatreds, once thought to have been consigned to the dustbin of history, have made tragic comebacks. Narcissism, self-centeredness, self-aggrandizement all lobby for equal time. Along with absolutes.
What is the answer?
I do not know.
Maybe it's not about victory... or policy...
Maybe we need the "great innovation" that works regardless of division.
Maybe the Galilean and all those '60s hippies were right.
Maybe what they world needs now is...