HETRICK: A Longfellow serenade on the midterm election

Keywords Elections / Notions / Opinion

Somewhere along the way, a wise teacher introduced me to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “O Ship of State.”

As a poetry and politics junkie, I read the opening lines with patriotic zeal and a mental image of a mighty vessel sailing straight and smooth into a stunning sunset.

Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!

Sail on, O Union, strong and great!

Humanity with all its fears,

With all the hopes of future years,

Is hanging breathless on thy fate!

Now, of course, I know better. I know of headwinds and crosswinds, of icebergs and Titanics too big to steer, of perfect storms and mighty hurricanes and the warning of red skies at morning.

Mostly, as evidenced once again by the Nov. 2 midterm elections, I know that our ship of state sails not on a straight and steady course—especially into the headwind of a struggling economy. Rather, it tacks and stalls—or even drifts—til it turns ’round, catches a breeze and starts anew.

Thus, in presidential politics, we tack left with FDR and Truman, right with Eisenhower, left with Kennedy and Johnson, right with Nixon and Ford, left with Carter, right with Reagan and Bush I, left with Clinton, right with Bush II, left with Obama.

In between, in our quest to slow down or speed up, to second-guess or sound an alarm, to correct course or reverse it altogether, we sometimes steer hard to port or starboard. This year’s election was one of those times.

Yet in the wake of this and every election, I witness the partisan pontificating and radical realignment rhetoric with a skeptical grain of salt and sand.

In 2008, we heard the death knell for the Republican Party. In 2010, we’re hearing the death knell for Obama and the Democrats.

Following this month’s federal election, we heard that voters prefer partisan gridlock to single-party rule and “jamming the president’s agenda down our throats.” But at the state level, Indiana voters traded partisan gridlock for single-party rule and “an easier path for the governor’s legislative agenda.”

During the campaign, we heard rallying cries for lower taxes and across-the-board spending cuts. But if past is prologue and the proverbial devil emerges from the details, the sacred cows of the military-industrial complex, Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security will have the would-be budget cutters hemming and hawing.

This election year, we heard calls for a smaller, less-active government and more reliance upon the private sector—except, of course, that we blamed government for not creating enough jobs quickly enough to offset private-sector cutbacks during the recent recession.

As in other years, we heard politicians calling for campaign reform and transparency. But once elected, officeholders from both parties time and again block reforms and accept anonymous backing for re-election campaigns.

Then, on Election Night, we heard presumptive House Speaker John Boehner call his new majority “the voice of the American people.” And yet, NBC First Read reported that those participating in midterm elections were only a skewed subset of the American people. “Compared to the 2008 president election,” said First Read, [2010 voters] were older (23 percent were over 65, an eight-point increase from 2008) and whiter (78 percent were white, a four-point increase from 2008).”

What’s more, exit polls showed near-equal negative rankings for both political parties—as though folks held their noses and voted for the least-offensive Democrat or Republican.

As Slate’s John Dickerson wrote: “We are a nation of swingers. In the last 16 years, each party has had a presidential victory and taken control of Congress in what was heralded as a realignment of American politics.

“Now it’s happened again. House Republicans got the car keys back, to use Barack Obama’s overused metaphor. But … exit polls suggested the country threw them at the GOP in disgust: Here, you drive … According to exit polls, 41 percent of voters have a favorable view of the Republican Party, four points less than President Obama. Even Tea Party members said the GOP was “on probation.”

In other words, against a recessionary headwind, tacking left in 2008 didn’t deliver hope and change fast enough, so we’re tacking right in 2010. But if you R’s don’t deliver hope and change fast enough, we’ll tack left in 2012, because we’re really not happy with either crew sailing this ship.

Thus, the zigzag goes on.

In light of our struggles to steer our ship of state, I suspect Longfellow’s closing lines are more apropos than his better-known opening.

Fear not each sudden sound and shock

’Tis of the wave and not the rock;

’Tis but the flapping of the sail,

And not a rent made by the gale!

In spite of rock and tempest’s roar,

In spite of false lights on the shore,

Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea!

Our hearts, our hopes, are all with thee.


Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at [email protected]

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