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Meeting at The Middle

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By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Thursday, November 9, 2006

It's over.

American voters, in their wisdom, ended an era on Tuesday. They rejected a poorly conceived war policy in Iraq that has weakened the United States. They rejected a harshly ideological approach to politics that cast opponents as enemies of the country's survival. They rejected a president so determined to win an election that he was willing to slander his opponents by saying: "The Democrat approach in Iraq comes down to this: The terrorists win and America loses." The voters decided there was no decency in that.

No longer will the national tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, be used to undermine the opposition party. It was only after he was forced to do so by an electoral defeat that President Bush called for genuine bipartisanship yesterday. Imagine what the world would look like if he had done that a year or two ago.

And no longer will we pay attention to political strategists who assert that swing voters aren't important and that independents and moderates don't matter. If Democrats are to make good use of the power they have been granted, they need to remember that last point. This election was the revenge of the center no less than it was the revenge of the left. The decisive votes cast on Tuesday came from moderates and independents, whom the exit polls showed favoring Democratic House candidates by about 3 to 2.

Nancy Pelosi and the other Democratic leaders face a genuinely complicated political calculus. On the one hand, Democrats would not have won without the intense dedication of their partisan and ideological base. Among self-identified Democrats, the party's House candidates won by about 13 to 1. Liberals went about 8 to 1 Democratic. This energy was critical to the outcome.

But many of the party's successful candidates ran as moderates, and Democrats hold power on the basis of a loan of votes from middle-of-the-road Americans who simply could not stomach Bush Republicanism anymore. The loan can be recalled at any moment.

The good news for Democrats is that their candidates, moderates and liberals alike, ran on two common themes: that the Bush Iraq policy had to change and that the Washington establishment simply does not understand the personal struggles and economic insecurities confronting so many Americans.

On Iraq, the president, not Congress, controls the essential levers of power, especially since Democrats have made clear that they will not use the one instrument they have, to cut off funding for the war, and they are right not to do so.

What they should do is use the coming report from the commission headed by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and Lee Hamilton, the former Democratic House member, to force a genuinely bipartisan approach to extricate us from Iraq at the lowest cost possible.

Tuesday's vote can help by making clear to the Iraqi government that there is a limit to American patience. The Shiite majority in Iraq must take more steps to reconcile with the Sunni minority. Our allies in the Arab world need to step up and help, because the American people will not tolerate endless engagement in Iraq. And the Democrats should encourage the administration to engage with all the nations in the region that have reason to fear an Iraqi civil war. That includes Syria and Iran.

The other obligation of this new majority is to answer the economic discontent that helped build its victory. Republicans prayed that the economy would matter in this election. Their prayers were answered in an odd way: Two-fifths of the voters told the pollsters that the economy was "extremely important" in their voting decision -- and they voted 3 to 2 for Democratic House candidates. A lot of Americans are losing ground, and they spoke up.

As long as Republicans control the White House, Democrats will not be able to pass far-reaching measures to deal with worries about pension benefits, health insurance and job security. What needs to begin is a long struggle to create a new social contract that will protect and lift up the tens of millions of Americans for whom globalization is more threat than promise.

It's worth pushing hard-to-veto legislation increasing the minimum wage, expanding health-care coverage and fixing the Medicare drug benefit. These steps need to be combined with hearings on more ambitious measures that would force the Washington establishment to come to terms with grass-roots economic discontents.

This election creates an exceptional opportunity to move from blind ideology to problem-solving and from stupid divisiveness to a politics of remedy and reconciliation. The Democrats had better make it work.

postchat@aol.com


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