U.S. Capitol Building Rotunda George Washington in Washington, DC
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February 2005 marked a mile­ stone, ofsorts, for America: Since the 9/11 attacks, we fought the
war on terror for 41 months—the samelengthoftimeittookourgrand- parents’ America to go from being attacked at Pearl Harbor to winning World War II in Europe.

Except for American troops, whose heroism has spanned the generations, our time does not stack up well by comparison. By May 1945, the United States had rallied the world to crush fascist totalitarianism and was hosting 50 allied nations to charter the United Nations. By February 2005, by contrast, the United States had splintered the world’s resolve to stamp out Islamic totalitarianism, weakened the United Nations, and damaged historic alliances. Three and a half years into the war on terror, no V-E Day is in sight, unless Bush counts his reelection as a victory over France.

Perhaps the most dispiriting contrast between then and now is closer to home. In the wake of the attacks on Pearl Harbor, FDR transformed a struggling, isolationist nation into the greatest economic and military power on earth, laid the groundwork for the most dramatic explosion of middle-class opportunity in history, and unleashed a spirit of sacrifice and responsibility we have prized for 60 years since. In the wake of 9/11, George W. Bush has corroded America’s economic engine, mismanaged the military, concentrated wealth, and fostered an ethic of debt and irresponsibility that will force our children to sacrifice for 60 years hence.

Is it too late to make America great again? That is the question Alan Wolfe asks in Return to Greatness: How America Lost Its Sense of Purpose and What It Needs to Do to Recover It.

Wolfe argues that America’s history has been a long struggle between a few Roosevelts and Lincolns who have challenged America to be great, and a swarm of Bushes and McKinleys who aimed low and achieved even less. While George W. Bush wants to be judged on the sweep of his ambitions, Wolfe explains that the test of greatness is courage and results, not audacity. “Bush’s presidency demonstrates that rejecting greatness when it is providentially offered,” writes Wolfe, takes leadership “of a particularly perverse sort.”

A few Republicans, led by John McCain, have urged their party to reclaim the “national greatness” mantle of Teddy Roosevelt. And, indeed, as Wolfe reminds us, “the first to speak seriously in recent years of national greatness were conservatives such as William Kristol.”

“There did exist at one time,” he writes, “a Republican Party that tried to act as the conscience of the nation,” represented by leaders such as Nelson Rockefeller, John Lindsay, Kingman Brewster, and Elliot Richardson. But no longer. A party truly committed to national greatness would work to make the nation stronger, not hobble its government, divide its people, and starve its armed forces to pay for tax cuts.

Any true national greatness movement, then, will have to come from the Democrats. Of course, that will require a few basics in short supply: a clear sense of national purpose, an unflinching commitment to national strength, and a cadre of national leaders who measure greatness by how much they ask of Americans, not how much they promise.

At first glance, Democrats hardly seem poised for greatness. Consider the two questions most on Democratic minds since November: the DNC’s battle to find the next Terry McAuliffe and the party-wide drumbeat to find a Democratic Karl Rove. We’re searching, all right–but not for heroes.

Alan Wolfe is right: It’s time to lift our sights. History is handing us the chance to reach for the brass ring that Bush fumbled, and we can’t afford to take a pass.

What could Democrats do to reach for the stars, instead of just posing with them? Wolfe’s most refreshing idea is to rebuild institutions that once were great but now have dwindled–“political parties capable of aggregating and mobilizing citizens; interest groups that crave members and not just contributors; labor unions that seek to create and not only to protect jobs; business firms that invest in those who work for them.” Wolfe’s own agenda for the next great president is nothing new– universal health care, a living wage, better schools. But his close analysis of past greatness suggests three clear prerequisites for its return.

First, as Wolfe suggests, making America great begins with a willingness to use force on behalf of America’s ideals in the world. The true liberal must fight for liberty abroad and at home, not pooh-pooh historic elections in Iraq while whining that Ohio was stolen. Wolfe acknowledges that Democrats now must overcome two syndromes–Iraq and Vietnam– but hopes that doing so might find the ideal synthesis: a renewed willingness to use force, tempered by a renewed appreciation for having allies at our side.

Second, a great nation must make reform its great cause here at home. Wolfe stresses that our best presidents have been bold and pragmatic at the same time–adopting FDR’s “bold, persistent experimentation” to find the right means, but throwing the full force of the nation toward achieving ambitious ends. The Bush administration has offered the worst of both worlds–big government with narrow, political ambitions. That’s how we ended up with a Medicare prescription drug law that costs taxpayers $1.2 trillion without saving seniors money.

A great nation needs a strong government, not a big one. That means flushing out the toxins that weaken our democracy: Congressional districts gerrymandered to ensure that incumbents never lose; a tax code riddled with corporate loopholes designed to stifle free-market competition; and a revolving door that turns Washington into the ultimate reality show, in which senior government officials compete to win top jobs at powerful lobbies.

Third, and perhaps most important, a nation needs leaders who bring out the best in citizens. Wolfe faults liberals for relying on interest groups that put their own interests ahead of the nation’s, and conservatives for waging a culture war that (as he argued in an earlier book, One Nation, After All) would not otherwise exist. Our consultant-driven politics has become an exercise in mutually assured demagoguery–the party of purple hair versus the party of purple fingers.

Every great president, by contrast, has tried to lift his nation up. FDR responded to totalitarian attack by making all Americans do their part, from victory gardens and the factory floor to Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. Where FDR told citizens, “Uncle Sam wants you,” Bush effectively told Americans, “Pardon the interruption.” In the 2004 campaign, George W. Bush and John Kerry should have been competing to inspire service and sacrifice. But instead of pressing for voluntary universal service, they tried to outbid each other in opposition to the draft.

Nations, like heroes, are made, not born. As Alan Wolfe points out, our greatest presidents have always found the courage to remind us of responsibilities we might otherwise pass by, and tapped the latent greatness that is imprinted in the American character.

Three and a half years after 9/11, America is not what it could have been, at home or abroad–and now George W. Bush has four more years to make that gulf wider still. But the quintessential American desire to reach for higher purpose, so lost on this president, waits to be awakened by the next. You can’t keep a great land down.

Bruce Reed

Bruce Reed served as chief of staff to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden from 2011-2013. He was director of the Domestic Policy Council during the Clinton administration from 1996 to 2001.