Tuesday, April 13, 2021
April 13, 2021

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Leubsdorf: In 40 years of writing an opinion column, I’ve seen tectonic shifts in Washington

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Forty years ago this week, in my first column on the Viewpoints page of The Dallas Morning News, I suggested the Democrats might more effectively challenge President Ronald Reagan by replacing their old-style congressional leaders, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill and Senate Leader Robert Byrd.

The following week, I wrote that some conservative activists who played a major role in Reagan’s nomination and election were expressing concern about the more pragmatic aspects of his appointments and his policies.

Both themes have often recurred in ensuing years. Members of both parties regularly grouse about their congressional leadership. And the more outspoken conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats often disdain the less ideological, more pragmatic course of the presidents they helped elect.

But many major aspects of today’s politics are strikingly different.

Over those four decades, I’ve watched campaigns become more expensive and politics more polarized, less controlled by the traditional establishment and more open to newcomers and outsiders like Donald Trump and Barack Obama.

Just as network television replaced newspapers as the dominant political influence, so have cable television and now social media come to the fore. Campaigns, like most aspects of American life, are far more complex than they once were.

Perhaps the most significant underlying change has been the ideological realignment that many mistakenly thought would create a more logical system. Instead, it has transformed both Democrats and Republicans from broad coalitions whose members often worked together to narrower groups that regularly produce more acrimony and gridlock than middle ground and agreement.

In the most extreme fallout, many of one party’s leaders – and their followers — questioned the traditional post-election transfer of power, provoking an ugly protest that threatened the very processes of democratic government.

Support for Trump exemplifies the way personalities have come to dominate politics, a trend many believe began with John F. Kennedy’s candidacy in the year I began work with The Associated Press.

Amid these changes, dissatisfactions with congressional leaders and political pragmatism have not been the only recurring themes that enable a weekly columnist to note ways history repeats itself, even while pursuing new directions.

At one point or another, each party has seemed on the brink of establishing long-term domination, only to discover it’s easier to lose power than gain it. In the Reagan era – and the early 2000s – Republicans saw their success in presidential politics extending into the indefinite future.

Then, after a disastrous Middle East war and an economic collapse swept the GOP from power, Democrats predicted the country’s growing diversity would enable them to regain their mid-20th century domination. That optimism lasted less than two years.

Unfortunately, the ever-changing news cycle helped trivialities dominate politics. As campaigns became continuous, it sometimes was easier to look to the interesting figures of the next election than those trying to govern as a result of the last one.

Though many political rules have been broken, one has survived: front-runners still generally win presidential nominations, like Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020. Obama’s 2008 triumph remains one of few modern exceptions.

One thing that has changed less than generally recognized is the continuing debate over the U.S. global role. Ever since acrimony over Vietnam broke the post-World War II internationalist consensus, both parties have struggled with whether this country should play a greater or a lesser role overseas.

Recent criticism over Biden’s decision to bomb Iranian units in Syria and the debate over withdrawing the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan exemplify that.

As readers often note, we columnists don’t always get it right. That very first column short-changed Tip O’Neill, who proved to be the perfect foil to Reagan. That July, when GOP strategists sought to turn a special Mississippi congressional election into Reagan vs. O’Neill, that conservative state’s voters chose O’Neill’s candidate.

When Bill Clinton faced the double whammy of stories about his efforts to avoid the draft and his affair with Gennifer Flowers, I confidently told our political editor his candidacy was doomed. He won two presidential terms.

Fortunately, I’ve been more cautious in print, especially in the annual forecasts I label as not totally serious. Those predictions did, however, include George W. Bush’s narrow 2000 victory over Al Gore and Obama’s election at the start of 2008. Like almost everyone else, I missed out on Trump, calling his election possible but unlikely.

Reactions from readers have generally reflected their political views as much as their view of mine. What I thought were balanced columns on the second President Bush were seen by one regular Democratic writer as too pro-Bush. And like every other journalist, columns critical of Trump have provoked sharp reactions, from both sides.

Through these four decades, I have been buoyed by the support of my editors on this paper and the Tribune News Service, which carries my column nationally. I’ve never been told what to write — or not to write — which has sometimes confused readers noting differences with the paper’s editorial policies.

Writing about national politics was always my goal, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to do it so long — 2,083 columns so far, without missing a week. I hope to continue as long as my brain continues to function — and my editors agree to run them.

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