Now the Decider Must Listen
Short of actual insurrection, I don't think the country could have spoken more clearly than it did Tuesday. But there's one question still to be answered, and in honor of Donald Rumsfeld, who now can devote full time and attention to stretching the boundaries of modern philosophy, let's call it a "known unknown": Did George W. Bush really hear what the nation told him about Iraq?
I think he did, but I'm pessimistic that he'll listen.
Since the election, the president has been saying all the right things about bipartisanship, about how eager he is to work with the new Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill. But what choice does he have after an electoral "thumpin' " of such historic proportions?
Power rules in Washington the way money rules in New York or celebrity in Los Angeles, and the White House has measurably less power today than it had a week ago. If Bush doesn't find a way to work with the opposition, he might as well spend the rest of his term at the ranch out in Crawford, riding his mountain bike and clearing all that pesky brush.
Never mind that after each of his slim victories, Bush claimed the kind of mandate that can be conferred only by a landslide. Never mind that he made no effort to govern from the center, with bipartisan support. He acted as if Democrats didn't exist, except as foils for his overheated rhetoric. Now they are indispensable to the remainder of his presidency and to the legacy he ultimately leaves behind.
There are indeed issues on which Bush and the Democrats will find the "common ground" that everyone claims to be seeking. The president's plan on immigration was blocked by Republicans, and now that the Great Wall of Arizona has been approved, maybe Washington will be able to come up with a reasonable, workable solution to the problem of undocumented migrants.
In exit polls, voters said they were deeply concerned about "corruption" in Washington -- a perfect issue to tackle in the new bipartisan spirit. Both parties will agree to ignore the basic problem, which is the corrosive effect that money has on our whole political system. The president and Congress will bravely declare their opposition to influence-peddling and various other sins. Then they will join in crafting "reform" legislation that might have some effect on the margins and that definitely will create more paperwork for lawyers -- but that leaves the current system pretty much in place.
Hey, Republican lobbyists have been gorging themselves at the public trough for a decade. Wouldn't be fair to deny Democratic lobbyists their turn, would it?
Iraq is another story. The election was also a referendum on George W. Bush's war, and clearly he understands that. He had been working on Rumsfeld's ouster for some time, but announcing it the day after the thumpin' seemed to be a concession.
What I haven't heard from Bush is any willingness to change his basic policy in Iraq. In his news conference Wednesday, he essentially retracted the aspersions he had cast on the Democratic Party's patriotism. But his message was that he's happy to work with the Democrats -- as long as they agree to his basic war policy, which is to keep American troops in Iraq "until the job is done."
I haven't heard an admission from Bush that the conflict has fundamentally changed, that American soldiers are now dying not to overthrow a tyrant (done that) or, primarily, even to fight an insurgency (still doing that), but to tamp down a sectarian civil war. I haven't heard an admission from Bush that the war was poorly planned, that the occupation has been poorly handled or that our supposed Iraqi allies have their own interests that don't necessarily coincide with ours.
I haven't seen any indication that Bush is ready to ask himself the questions that millions of Americans posed on Tuesday: What are we accomplishing in Iraq? What kind of country, realistically, will we leave behind? Will leaving Iraq, in, say, five years make us any safer than leaving Iraq now? Will our extended presence even make life better for Iraqis?
Democrats were restrained during the campaign, which was smart. But now it's time for them to ask those hard questions -- and use their new power to compel answers. Even if they have to be unfashionably partisan about it.