The year was 1993. Washington was all a buzz. And at that moment, I was privileged to shake the hand of the one man who was causing the stir. No, not Kenny G. While it’s true that I had heard him perform a few minutes earlier and many of the folks in the room had the saxophone on our minds, we had come to meet another, lesser, saxophone player named William Jefferson Clinton. And “we” were the members of the so-called Saxophone Club – donors to Clinton’s campaign.
That evening, a lot of concepts had been running through my mind. Political centrism. Adultery. Policy-wonkism. Oratory. The Democratic Party. Supreme extroversion. Supreme self-confidence. Supreme campaigning. I had no idea how Clinton would govern, but I knew how he had campaigned. He seemed to adore the whole process. He loved people (whether in big or small groups), analyzing public policy issues, and figuring out a way to explain his analysis on the campaign trail. He was only the second American politician in my adult life who seemed to be a natural – a Hall of Famer, as it were. Whereas the first, Ronald Reagan, came from that “other” party, Clinton was one of my guys. And in early 1993, years before he would disgrace himself with “that woman,” Clinton made us Democrats proud.
Looking back at the situation more than two decades later, I have mixed feelings about Bill Clinton. I guess I still kind of like him – in fact, I figure he’d make a better President than any other American politician I can think of, but there are a few things about him that stick in my craw. One of those is the motto that was used in his War Room during the 1992 campaign. That room came to be associated with guys like James Carville, George Stephanopoulos, and Paul Begala. Wunderkinds all! And their motto is now considered political gold: “It’s the Economy, Stupid.” According to conventional wisdom, Clinton’s minions hit the nail on the head. Americans care about one thing – their wallets. Here, on the west side of the Junior Pond, we can barely even name the continents across the sea, let alone the countries. Who cares what happens there? What matters is whether here in the Promised Land, the Dow is up, the unemployment rate is down, and the inflation rate is non-existent.
In 1994, a year after I shook Clinton’s hand, genocide consumed roughly 800,000 Rwandans. That’s almost 300 times as many as the people who died in 9/11. What did the Clinton Administration do to stop that genocide? Not much. The Administration figured that this genocide didn’t have much to do with the American economy, and there weren’t a lot of big-time political donors from Rwanda. According to conventional wisdom, wasting political capital on such a conflict would have been, what is the word, “interventionist.” As President Number 1 put it, "It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world." President Number 3, not wanting to be outdone, made the same point with just a little more rhetorical flair: "Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations -- entangling alliances with none." I believe the key word there was “commerce.” It’s the economy, stupid. Always has been, always will be!
Well, maybe not. I’ll grant that Carville, Begala and George the Short captured properly the American electorate of 1992 … or 1792, for that matter. But to quote another great American, “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” Gaza. Isis. Ebola. Putin. Netanyahu. Hamas. Ukraine. Syria. Iraq. Assad. No longer are these foreign concepts to Americans. With one simple word, a whole series of thoughts rush in. Now, try to do the same with domestic issues. Here goes: Obamacare. Hillary. Tea-party. Not nearly as long a list, is it?
Do me this favor next week. Turn on Fox News or MSNBC in the evening when they’re not talking about one of the international crises du jour and are instead focusing on domestic issues. Immediately, the discussion will seem incredibly petty. Plato once compared people who are unschooled in philosophy to troglodytes who are looking at shadows on their cave’s wall. And truly, after you listen to a news report about the incredibly important things going on around the world, it’s hard not to listen to a discussion about domestic issues without thinking that the reporters or talking heads are, indeed, troglodytes. Right now, the world is facing threats from (a) an out-of-control killer virus, (b) a bully who wants to resurrect the old Soviet Union, (c) a never-ending war in the Holy Land that periodically ensconces the residents of that area in a combination of hatred and victimization, (d) a band of terrorists who wish to gobble up more and more territory and use it as a springboard for more and more attacks, (e) a thug who used chemical weapons on his own people and now is satisfying himself with more conventional, but equally lethal, weapons … Now tell me, boys and girls, do we have anything going on here in the US of A that is equally compelling? One-tenth as compelling?
I heard a newscaster ask the other day whether “America” faces a threat from Ebola. Immediately, I laughed. Did that newscaster have in mind my daughter who is in South Africa now for several weeks and who has a ticket to go to West Africa for several weeks later in the year? Perhaps the newscaster could have asked the same question about whether “America” faces a threat from the war in Israel and Gaza. And perhaps she has in mind my other daughter, whose American rabbinical school expects her to spend a year in Israel -- which in her case, begins this October. In the 21st century, do we really still think we’re living in a time when the oceans that border our shores operate like force fields that keep the rest of the world out and that keep us ‘umericuns in?
Bill Clinton says that he regrets his inaction in Rwanda, and I believe him, but it was completely predictable at that time. He is, after all, a political campaigner first and foremost, and politicians here in America were never rewarded by taking care of the well-being of Africans. Gradually, though, I’m thinking that the equation will change, and maybe not so gradually at that. I doubt I’m alone in getting increasingly bored with partisan squabbling about microscopic economic changes at home, when so many lives are in danger abroad. And I doubt I’m alone in realizing that nightmarish situations abroad increasingly threaten the lives of folks at home, not to mention those among us who spend time abroad.
I suspect that this fall, our politicians will continue to campaign based on the “It’s the economy, stupid” theme. If it’s worked for well over two centuries, it seems strange to change the model. But don’t be surprised if huge swaths of voters stay away from the polls. And don’t be surprised if campaign contributions dry up as well. People vote in mid-terms because they are energized, and right now, the only energizing issues are foreign policy issues. “It’s the economy, stupid,” is morphing into: “Don’t be stupid, pay attention to the world – it’s getting smaller every day.”