I can think of at least four broad reasons to be happy and relieved about last Tuesday's election results. None of these requires you to believe liberal Democrats are saints or saviors — just that it's better to have a dialogue than a monologue in government.
1. It wiped the smirks away
On Election Night, I was stuck at the Atlanta airport, trying to get back to New York. By a stroke of luck, they boarded us early, at 7pm, for a flight that didn't end up leaving until 9pm and didn't land until 11pm. I say 'luck,' because it was on one of Delta's former Song planes featuring satellite TV. So, political nerd that I am, I happily watched CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC for four hours. (I realize this, even more than a Democratic Congress, may be some folks' idea of hell.)
By far the most satisfying moments in those four hours were on Fox, as right-wing anchor Brit Hume and commentators like Fred Barnes struggled to put a positive spin on the Republican debacle. These men wear perpetual smirks and sneers, and relish every opportunity to mock and deride their opponents while praising and/or excusing even the most disgraceful acts of the Bush administration. But that night, they eventually gave up trying to pretend. The perpetual smirks were wiped off their faces. It was wonderful to see.
And the next day, our Smirker-in-Chief presented a remarkably gracious and humble face as he reacted publicly to the "thumpin'" his party had received. His words at the post-election news conference and during meetings with the incoming Democratic leaders of the House and Senate were on some level, of course, just well-rehearsed, politically necessary bullshit. We will no doubt get back to sniping and partisan hot air shortly. But one of the most exasperating things about the Bush government has been its pigheaded insistence it has done nothing wrong, as evidence to the contrary has risen to mountainous heights. So even a momentary pause in that very destructive attitude is something we can all be grateful for.
2. Accountability has the chance to make a comeback
Much has been said, both before and after the election, about the scary left-wing extremists who will take over Congressional committee chairmanships in January. I believe this is nonsense, for several reasons, but the most important cause for cheering is committee hearings, full of partisan bloviating, as they certainly will be at times, will provide the currently lacking counterpunch to Republican policies. If they are used properly, they will have real teeth as they find and reveal the corruption, inequity, and plain wrong-headedness that inevitably riddle the foreign and domestic policies of any government. For most of the last six years, the Republican Congress has served as an echo chamber for these policies, and dissenting voices were given little chance to be heard or acted upon.
The largest issue facing Congressional committee oversight is the war in Iraq. As Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker puts it, the "mendacity, incompetence, lawlessness, and ideological arrogance surrounding the origins and conduct of that war" need to be fully aired in public hearings. A lot of this will be backward-looking finger-pointing, but it's still a healthy exercise, and it is the Constitutional duty of the Congress, a duty Republicans have, understandably, let lapse.
As for future policy directions, the bipartisan Baker commission report will come out next month, and we can hope it will provide a starting point and a blueprint to finding a way out of the frightening chaos the war has become. At least two polar opposite points of view will have to be reconciled. With equal vehemence, John McCain says send lots more troops and win the war militarily, and John Murtha says bring them home now, because our very presence is a major cause of the chaos. I don't believe either of these viewpoints is nearly as ironclad as their proponents do, but a public hearing based on a bipartisan report can begin to formulate some policies to propose to the administration. And we can hope Bush will actually listen to these voices rather than continuing to charge boldly forward with his failed policy.
Domestically, here are three examples of areas Congressional committees should look hard at: