American politics reached a critical turn last week. The revolt of several Republican senators against President Bush's insistence on a free hand in treating terrorist detainees signaled the emergence of an independent force in elections and government.
This movement is not new, but the moral scale of the issue -- torture -- and the implications for both constitutional and international law give it an epic dimension, even if it is ultimately settled by compromise.
The senators involved -- John McCain, Lindsey Graham and John Warner -- were also instrumental in forming the "Gang of 14," the bipartisan bloc that seized control of the Senate last year and wrote the compromise that prevented a drastic change in the filibuster rule that otherwise would have triggered a bitter partisan divide.
These are not ordinary men. McCain, from Arizona, is probably the leading candidate for the 2008 presidential nomination. Graham, from South Carolina, is the star among the younger Republican senators. Warner, from Virginia, embodies the essence of traditional Reagan conservatism: patriotism, support for the military, civility.
They were joined in their opposition to Bush's call for extraordinary interrogation techniques by Colin Powell, the former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is still, despite the controversies over his role in Iraq policy, one of the most admired Americans.
That these Republicans -- and others -- were ready to join the Democrats in rejecting Bush's plan caused the White House to scramble for alternatives and House Republican leaders to postpone a scheduled vote. The revolt goes well beyond three men.
What it really signals is a new movement in this country -- what you could rightly call the independence party. Its unifying theme can be found in the Declaration of Independence's language when Jefferson invoked "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind."
When Powell wrote that Bush's demand would compound the world's "doubt [about] the moral basis of our fight against terrorism," he was appealing to Jefferson's standard.
It is a standard this administration has flagrantly rejected. Bush was elected twice, over Democrats Al Gore and John Kerry, whose know-it-all arrogance rankled Midwesterners such as myself. The country thought Bush was a pleasant, down-to-earth guy who would not rock the boat. Instead, swayed by some inner impulse or the influence of Dick Cheney, he has proved to be lawless and reckless. He started a war he cannot finish, drove the government into debt and repeatedly defied the Constitution.
Now, however, you can see the independence party forming -- on both sides of the aisle. They are mobilizing to resist not only Bush but also the extremist elements in American society -- the vituperative, foul-mouthed bloggers on the left and the doctrinaire religious extremists on the right who would convert their faith into a whipping post for their opponents.
The center is beginning to fight back. Michael Bloomberg, the Republican mayor of New York, is holding a fundraiser for Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Democrat running as an independent against the bloggers' favorite, Ned Lamont.
His election is important, as is Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee's in Rhode Island, because both would signal that independence is a virtue to be rewarded.
Similarly important, though less publicized, is Republican Sen. Mike DeWine's race in Ohio. DeWine is an ally of McCain & Co. in forming a center for the Senate; his opponent, Democratic Rep. Sherrod Brown, is a loud advocate of protectionist policies that offer a false hope of solving our trade and job problems.
A "decent respect" begins at home, with an acknowledgment of public opinion. Americans are saying no to excess greenhouse gases and no to open borders; yes to embryonic stem cell research, yes to a path to earned citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants and yes to a living wage. Six more states are likely to approve increases in the minimum wage through ballot initiatives in November.
A congressional election with lots of new faces and a scare for many returning veterans is important as a signal to next year's likely leaders such as Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi that they can't design their strategies simply to satisfy the most rabid of their party's extremes; they have to govern down the center and work across party lines.
And that in turn would set the stage for a 2008 election in which the two branches of the independence movement -- Republican and Democratic -- could compete in a campaign that would, for a change, show a "decent respect" for the intelligence of the American people.