Some of my colleagues in the pundit business have become unhinged by the election results. The always diverting Maureen Dowd of the New York Times suggested the other day that "the forces of darkness" are taking over the country. The voters' confirmation of Republican-led government brings with it "a scary, paranoid, regressive reality," Dowd said, with "strains of isolationism, nativism, chauvinism, puritanism and religious fanaticism." After a campaign of "blatant distortions and character assassination," Republicans have returned to Washington bent on "messing with our psyches" and punishing "society's most vulnerable: the poor, the sick, the sexually different."
I know that many agree with that view. But before throwing yourself over a cliff or emigrating to Sweden, consider a couple of things.
George W. Bush was reelected by 51 percent of the people. His first significant action following Election Day was to retain Andrew Card, a Massachusetts-based business moderate, as his chief of staff.
His second was to accept the resignation of John Ashcroft, the hero of the religious right and the favorite bogeyman of civil libertarians, as attorney general. Ashcroft's replacement, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, will receive close scrutiny from Democratic senators, but almost all of them who commented said they welcomed the choice.
That's a funny way to start "another dark age."
Republicans will hold 55 of the 100 seats in the Senate. Among them are many, including such conservatives as Pat Roberts and Thad Cochran, whom I would trust to defend my journalistic freedom -- or Dowd's -- no matter how much they disagreed with what we wrote. I can count two dozen Senate Republicans who have experienced with their own families and friends the pain of mental or physical illness, or poverty, or racial or sexual discrimination.
Do you think they would stand silent while a vendetta against any of those groups was carried out?
Republicans won 53 percent of the seats in the House. Their caucus is dominated by conservatives, but -- this may come as a shock -- all conservatives are not of one mind. Freed from the constraints of a presidential election year, some of them will pester Bush to get serious about budget deficits. Some will urge him to take a cue from Arnold Schwarzenegger and rethink his restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. And some self-described "real right-wingers" from states as red as Idaho will insist on changes in the USA Patriot Act before it is renewed, because they take their right to privacy seriously.
The exaggerated reaction to the election among many liberals was set off by the belief that Bush owes his victory to a bunch of religious zealots bent on imposing their views on the whole society. That impression was based on exit polls showing that Bush won overwhelmingly among the 22 percent of voters who said moral values were the most important issue to them.
But as columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. has pointed out, even if he had won every vote in that bloc, Bush wouldn't have gotten close to a majority. The real Bush success was in fighting John Kerry to a near-standoff among self-described moderates.
Tim Hibbitts, an independent pollster in Portland, Ore., has done some exit poll calculations that make an interesting point. Gay marriage was an energizing issue in states such as his, where it was on the ballot as a voter initiative. Bush lost Oregon, even though the measure banning gay marriage passed.
In the national exit polls, Hibbitts found that 12 percent of Bush's voters actually favored permitting gay marriages; 38 percent favored civil unions but not gay marriages. That leaves 50 percent of the Bush voters who said no legal recognition should be given to same-sex couples. Kerry voters went the other way, with less than a quarter taking a no-recognition stance. But on both sides, Hibbitts points out, opinion is nuanced, not monolithic. You can see why Congress is wary of a constitutional amendment on this issue.
What is true about gay marriage applies also to other questions that will confront this administration and Congress: judgeships, tax reform, entitlement reform, energy, health care and the rest. Bush has gained the right to set the agenda, but he has not obliterated the opposition. Once they recover from their disappointment, Democrats will realize that winning 48 percent of the popular vote in a high-turnout election, as Kerry did, provides a sturdy base from which to climb back into power.
Bush won, but he will have to work within the system for whatever he gets. Checks and balances are still there. The nation does not face "another dark age," unless you consider politics, with all its trade-offs and bargaining, a black art.