There was an audible sigh of relief as the returns came in this last Tuesday and perhaps one can even say of tempered joy when two days later the one time Presidential aspirant George Allen conceded the Senate’s leadership to the Democrats. While the new Speaker and Majority leader to be, rallied the faithful in victory mode, most of us knew that what we were witnessing remained more a hope than a done deal. As the pink slipped Donald Rumsfeld said, the war in Iraq is complicated, apparently an insight that came to him only after being forced to stand half smiling next to the President and his named successor, a bone fide Poppy Bush retainer.
Are we feeling better? Yes for sure. Was this election enough to turn the tide not merely in Iraq but on a host of domestic and international problems? I wish a yes came easily in that regard; it does not. Just as Rumsfeld acknowledged the complexity the war, Bush pointed to what was in fact an accumulation of very narrow victories born out of a country still deeply divided many of whose citizens are so turned off that even when they do vote (still a paltry 40%) they often do so holding their noses or at the very least without enthusiasm. This was basically a vote against – anyone but – not yet a vote for; an expression of hope rather than of any real conviction that the new gang in town would get us back on track. One of those critical power turning wins was in Missouri which is known as the “show me state”. I can think of no more apt metaphor for where we are the morning after.
Many of us have been complaining for years now that the Bush Administration and its finally discredited Defense Secretary had no plan for the morning after taking Baghdad. They still don’t seem to have one and both we and the Iraqis (indeed the world) are suffering the consequences. I sure hope Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have concrete plans (which they say they do) for this morning after this election both internationally and domestically. Of course, where we really are at this juncture has to be put into context. The Congress, albeit theoretically a co-equal with the Executive, is no such thing. As Orwell said, “all pigs are equal but some pigs are more equal than others.” The power of the Executive, while suffering its own ups and downs, has essentially been growing systematically over the years and no more so than under this Administration. President George W is a far cry from the founding father George W not merely in substance but in philosophy. If you have any doubt about the power of the Presidency just look at what use Bush made of it despite losing the popular vote and having to be imposed on us by the Supreme Court. In the days following most Americans thought whoever emerged from that nightmare of vote counting couldn’t do much (harm) given the questionable mandate. Some of us at least hoped that were the case. Were we all wrong! Presidents, all on their own can do a great deal, good and bad. Congresses, even with a substantial majority in place is much more confined. It may be able to prevent but can’t really initiate, certainly not in the same way as the President.
The majorities in 2006, most especially in the Senate, are very thin and the Democrats are further challenged by their truly large tent compounded by a notorious lack of discipline. Of course neither attribute has to be bad. In fact, one might argue that the electorate has begun to question the advantages of lock-step single ideology governance. That’s what we’ve had over the last six years and look where it has gotten us. Still, to have any impact, the new majority will have to be pro-active which means putting themselves on the line. In the past few days, I’ve heard various pundits suggest that the much awaited Baker-Hamilton study group may provide cover to both the President (permitting him to change course with honor) and the new Congressional majority (saving them from having to author a plan of action). Perhaps so, but that is hardly good news. The last thing we need is new leadership already looking for cover. Americans, including and perhaps most especially those who reliably vote for them, know that Democrats oppose current policy. What we want to know is what those who have been given our support will do about it. Nobody expects an instant fix, but we do demand at least a dim light at the end of the tunnel.
In 2004 we were told that values dominated the day. In fact, while scoring higher than any other single issue, value inspired voters represented a tiny minority in the 20 percentile range. The value thing was no more than hyped spin mouthed by partisan voices and willingly transmitted by an largely uncritical (and in this case lazy) press. The value story made good news. This time around, corruption was more frequently sighted than anything else, and given the history of the past two years that’s hardly surprising. But what is talked up most in the post mortems is that Americans are looking for consensus, for middle ground not for polarized ideologies and dispute. That may well be true and perhaps only by working from the middle can anything be accomplished in these next two years. It is also a disturbing idea. The truth is that there is nothing wrong with strong divergent ideas. George Bush and the Republicans have taken The United States to a place with which many of us disagree and moving ahead may require a radical departure from current policy and orientation. The problem is not whether there is a Left or a Right but whether the conversation about widely different points of view can be conducted with mutual respect and a modicum of humility. That is what has been missing of late and that’s what we must bring back to the national discourse if we are to escape the present morass – if the light we see is more than a dim, albeit hopeful, mirage.