It is Judy Garland versus Vera Lynn. It is the 1939 song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” versus the 1942 hit “The White Cliffs of Dover.” It is America in its prewar reverie versus Great Britain in its wartime trial.
This is, for America’s two political parties, a bluebird moment.
Let me explain: Garland sang that “Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly.” Lynn crooned that “When the dawn comes up/There’ll be bluebirds over/The white cliffs of Dover.”
There the visions — and the lyrics — divert, and there the two parties do as well.
The Republicans are embracing the song Garland trilled when, in “The Wizard of Oz,” Aunt Em bid her to “find yourself a place where you won’t get into any trouble” — the precise goal the GOP chases as the Donald J. Trump period fades into history, perhaps only to return in a restoration campaign four years from now.
The Democrats, flush with victory in the war for the White House, are clinging to the wartime dreams of battered Britain, when Lynn looked with hope to bright postwar skies, a time when “There’ll be love and laughter” and when “History will prove it too/When the tale is told/It will be as of old/For truth will always win through.”
Neither song — neither vision — is likely to be fully redeemed, just as the American daydream of 1939 could not persist after Pearl Harbor in 1941, just as it would be three years until “the light of hope” Lynn helped place in the eyes of 1942 Britain would take form in what Winston Churchill called the “broad sunlit uplands” of a world rid of Nazi war and tyranny.
The good news is that bluebirds don’t necessarily migrate and that they can roost both singly or in a group through the winter. So there is hope that the contention of the autumn might dissipate with a new year (2021), a new Congress (the 117th) and a new president (the 46th).
There already are signs it might. One reason: Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a state with three species of bluebirds and a remote redoubt where the woodlands and fields are often enriched by their beguiling musical call. He told Fox News’ Bret Baier that “whether it be packing the courts or ending the filibuster, I will not vote to do that.” Given the peculiar rules of the Senate, which in some ways give more power to an individual lawmaker than to any coalition of lawmakers, the Manchin machination means Congress, and the country, might not be divided by Democrats zooming leftward while Republicans retrench on the right.
The departure of the divisive figure of Trump, and the fading influence of his nocturnal tweets, also may bring clarity to the American political landscape, which has been obscured by the president’s clouds of invective.
On the surface, the transition in American foreign policy from the Trump Republicans to the Biden Democrats may produce international vertigo. Consider this presidential commission’s evaluation of American foreign policy: alternating “between isolation and independence, between sharply marked economic nationalism and international initiative in cooperation moving in a highly unstable zigzag course.” Those words were written in the 1930s. They apply nine decades later.
And yet, though the Trump ascendancy seems a dizzying departure from the past, consider how University of Missouri historian Jay Sexton, in his 2018 book “A Nation Forged by Crisis,” characterized the New Deal: as “a nationalist turn toward protectionism, immigration restriction and unilateralism.”
When the dust settles, as it may after the white tornado of Trump vituperation dissipates, historians and experts may come to agree that the Trump approach to foreign policy — while contemptuous of international organizations and of customary diplomatic comportment — may not be such a major departure from the direction of 21st-century foreign policy after all.
“If you look at the Obama and Trump records, there is a remarkable consistency, including establishing a lighter footprint for the U.S. around the globe and the effort to have NATO partners spend more on mutual defense,” said Kiron K. Skinner, director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for International Relations and Politics and a former State Department director of policy planning in the Trump administration. “Trump did it in a more public way, but they agree that this has to happen.”
Moreover, the New Deal, like the Trump movement, recognized and empowered those who had been ignored and possessed little power.
The difference in both diplomacy and domestic politics, of course, is that Franklin Roosevelt was a veteran of, and an admirer of, the internationalist Woodrow Wilson administration, a contrast to Trump’s contempt for his GOP antecedents, especially the two Presidents Bush. FDR also respected domestic and diplomatic norms. Though he was regarded as a “traitor to his class” — the title of a 2008 biography by H.W. Brands — he comported himself in ways congruent with upper-class New York standards. Trump did not. FDR stabilized the country. Trump did not.
Plus this, also from Sexton: “Even the excesses and failures of the New Deal had the effect of strengthening the constitutional order.” The notion of packing the Supreme Court failed in the Roosevelt years and served only to strengthen the concept of the separation of powers.
Now, a word of warning about investing inspiration in bluebirds and finding beauty in the royal blue of the males and the elegant gray of the females. Bluebirds have the capacity of dispersing, flying away in directions unknowable and unpredictable. Yet even in the frosty northern parts of the country, some of them remain. The Michigan Bluebird Society offers counsel on how to keep them around in backyard birdhouses: “First, plug up any ventilation openings or holes with weather stripping or removable caulking to keep cold air out.”
In the case of politics, of course, it is the hot air that is the danger. But the point stands, though there remains danger that the two major political parties — the one that could not have imagined a decade ago that Joe Biden would be its savior, the other that could not have imagined that Trump would be its leader — could fly apart. For as Lynn, who died earlier this year at age 103, would teach us in her unforgettable ballad of inspiration, we simply must “wait and see.” And hope.