Editor’s Note: Our Gathering Storm

In Churchill’s first official speech as Prime Minister, he famously proclaimed: “I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many long months of toil and struggle.”

Churchill, of course, was referring to the Nazi tyranny being spread across Europe on the backs of the Wehrmacht. Indeed, even as Churchill spoke, the German Army was flooding into France; they would be in Paris just a month later. Soon, the Nazi invaders would be over Britain itself—the prelude to what was intended to be a full-scale invasion of the island kingdom.

Britain, however, survived—a feat due in no small part to Mr. Churchill himself. For all the importance of anti-aircraft technology, fighter production, and the weakness of the German surface fleet, much depended on the intangible strengths of a single man. Had it not been for Churchill’s reassuring voice, steady hand, and able mind, the Battle of Britain—and, indeed, the entire Second World War—might have ended much differently.

We likewise find ourselves in the midst of a crisis. True, it does not and cannot compare to the Second World War. Yet, we are nonetheless facing what Alan Greenspan recently described as a “once-in-a-century” financial emergency. And while the Iraq War, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and the rise of China have been cut out of the campaign stump speeches, they have not ceased to be critical issues. Another major problem—out-of-control entitlement spending—is not even on the agenda.

But while these storm clouds continue to gather on the horizon, many of our leaders have wavered between two extremes: dangerous complacency and imprudent action. Take the financial crisis. For years, they ignored the inevitable collapse of the housing bubble, decrying any call to crack down on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as an assault on affordable housing. Then, when the economy first began to show signs of stress, Congress rushed to pass stimulus packages (which clearly did not work). And when the investment banks started to fail, Congress sprinted to pass a bailout bill that was more expensive than the entire Iraq War.

Suppose, for a minute, that the bailout bill actually succeeds in arresting the credit crisis; suppose the losses we have so far suffered are actually smaller than they would have been otherwise. Two problems still remain. First, we cannot reclaim the costs of inaction. Instead of just stopping the bleeding, imagine if we had been prudent enough to avoid this crisis in the first place.

Second, the bill creates a potentially dangerous precedent. Judging by the polls, our government might soon consist of even more people who support government intervention in the economy. It would not be a surprise, then, to see the federal government to take drastic action at the first sign of future trouble—whether warranted or not.

Clearly, this situation is not ideal. And it is due, in large part, to what I referred to in my last column as “the leadership deficit.” Fortunately, with election season now upon us, we have the opportunity to elect new representatives. But now it’s our turn to be prudent. We need to choose candidates who are both capable and far-sighted, who will put the well-being of our nation above their own self-interest.

Keep in mind the type of leadership Churchill exhibited. True, he was eloquent, but he also had experience at nearly every level of government. He had not simply a vision, but the right vision. He knew how to stage a comeback—whether in his own political career or on behalf of his nation. We need the candidate who best embodies these qualities.

Thus, like England in 1940, we are likely facing “many long months of toil and struggle.” But will we find a new Churchill to lead us through it?

Subscribe to the Stanford Review