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Issue Date:  November 17, 2006

A move away from extremism

Elections matter.

In the space of a day, the power structure in Washington underwent a major overhaul, as voters employed the most direct method available to them to repudiate an administration that has grown increasingly distant from and distrusted by the people it is supposed to serve.

In the broadest terms, it appears that President Bush, elected twice by the slimmest of margins, was made to pay a heavy price for governing as if half the country could be ignored. The Democratic takeover of the House and the Senate (the latter by the slimmest of margins) was the result of a combination of many factors, local and national, but a few of those factors stand out in the immediate aftermath.

Most impressive was the renunciation of the war in Iraq, a sentiment that spanned party lines and much of the political spectrum. The resounding message -- that the United States is on the wrong track -- is especially significant, given the administration’s resort to fear tactics and near-hysterical claims as the campaign wound down that a Democratic victory would spell disaster in the war on terror.

Exit polls also showed that voters were making a statement about corruption. The scandals involving Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff and pals, whose influence peddling was accomplished with oceans of cash that washed through congressional offices, and California Congressman Duke Cunningham, who showed a particular talent for extorting gifts and cash from the Defense Department, fueled the electorate’s wish for a change. And there was, of course, Mark Foley.

Not least, the election showed that governing from the extremes is a short-lived project. It might turn out that the much-vaunted genius of Bush political strategist Karl Rove was a flash in the pan, a strategy that fit the moment and helped squeak out two elections but failed to deliver the “permanent realignment” he and the president sought.

It is safe to say that the neoconservative experiment that defined this administration has come undone. The unilateral projection of U.S. power abroad and a domestic program that put individualism in hyper mode, and wrapped it all in a religiosity owing to the most extreme and conservative brand of Christianity, has been found terribly wanting. Governing from the extremes takes a degree of single-mindedness, a determination to ignore criticism and a moral certitude that simply can’t be sustained over a long period in a democracy.

So things have sprung back to the middle. It was on the heels of their own thumpin’s, as Bush might put it, that the Democrats began to see the error of their extremism in ignoring religion and making purity on abortion a matter of party creed.

More difficult for the Democrats, of course, will be deciding how to proceed in this new position of power. On the burning issue of Iraq, the Democrats’ success has already garnered a first step in changing course, the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who will be replaced by the reportedly more moderate Robert M. Gates. That switch, combined with the anticipated report of the Baker-Hamilton Commission may provide the political cover necessary to wind up the misadventure in Iraq. At the least we will be rid of Rumsfeld’s endless dissembling.

The president spoke after the election of finding common ground. He and the Democrats just might find that turf on such issues as raising the national minimum wage (a move endorsed this election in six state referendums), immigration, and public ethics reform. Those items alone would constitute a formidable agenda for the next two years.

In the longer run, Democrats and Republicans are going to have to face issues that were not the grist of exit polls or pre-election attack ads. Attention to the environment, especially the growing threat of global warming, will have to be part of any responsible agenda in the near future. It is becoming increasingly evident, too, that nearly 50 million uninsured Americans is ballooning into more than a health-care crisis. It is becoming a full-blown catastrophe as the population ages and as more and more children are denied adequate health care.

The past six years has seen a serious erosion of America’s position and prestige in the world, much of which cheered what it saw in the election as a repudiation of the administration’s agenda, and also Rumsfeld’s departure. But our standing in the world is more than a matter of public relations. We have walked away from international obligations and treaties during the Bush administration. We have acted unilaterally in beginning wars and we have conducted secret prisons and interrogations in other countries.

The past six years have also witnessed a severe deterioration in civil liberties, with secret investigations, without warrant, of domestic phone records and secret mining of information from private banking records; suspension of habeus corpus and detention of foreign suspects without charges and without legal representation; the use of “rendition flights” to move suspects to third countries where they faced the prospect of torture; and memos from two attorneys general and statements by the president and vice president justifying the use of torture in interrogating terror suspects.

The suspicion is that the quick answers of an exit poll, if drilled deeper, might reveal a more profound uneasiness that has accumulated during the past six years about what we’ve become as a people and a culture.

Certainly the electorate has recognized that what some once claimed was God-ordained-and-blessed is merely a matter of ambition gone bad. Our faint hope is that religion, in all its forms, has also learned from the past six years. What we may be coming to understand is that acting out of faith is a complex matter, that God doesn’t sign off on political parties, strategies or wars. That in the end, with God’s grace, we are left, human to human, to puzzle out, humbly if with determination, the great issues of the day.

And then we get to vote again.

National Catholic Reporter, November 17, 2006

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