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:
• The stealth insertion by California Republican Duncan Hunter of a provision that kills the Office of Inspector General charged with finding waste and corruption in defense contracts in Iraq. This was sneaky and reprehensible, and certainly has the appearance of undue influence by defense industry lobbyists.
• The provision in the Medicare drug plan that forbids the government to negotiate prices on medications. Again, this has the unpleasant odor of corporate lobbyists creating policy protecting their industry at taxpayer expense. Billy Tauzin, former Republican congressman, now head of the pharmaceutical lobby, helped craft this provision right before he left Congress to take the lobbying job.
• The aftermath of the Abramoff-DeLay scandals. Nancy Pelosi has been quoted as saying, "We will make this the most honest and ethical congress in history." Let's hope these are more than simply politically expedient words. A genuine cleanup of the ethical mess involving lobbyists' money would affect Democrats as well as Republicans. Will they have the nerve to take this issue on in a meaningful way?
3. Fiscal sanity can at least be talked about, if not yet enacted
I know my Republican readers will laugh or become apoplectic, or both, at this notion. The stereotype of Democrats is as champions of Tax and Spend. But a couple of things have happened during the last three Presidencies to change that. Both Bush père in 1992 and Bill Clinton in 1993 pushed through deficit-reduction packages that included both tax increases and spending cuts. This caused much uproar among those for whom taxes are an ideological flash point rather than an economic tool. But the public had learned to despise the huge budget deficit, and there was widespread relief by 1999-2000 the government's budget had actually gone into surplus. There were plenty of disputes about who or what deserved the credit, but no one was unhappy to see the deficit disappear.
It was understandable when, in 2001, an incoming Republican administration wanted to return some of the budget surplus to the public through tax cuts, also thereby stimulating an economy reeling from the collapse of the dot-com bubble. But then came 9/11, followed by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And what may have seemed sensible in peacetime looked very different during an expensive war. But in another example of the ideological pigheadedness that has characterized the Bush administration, for the first time in this century, the government cut taxes during wartime. The result was, duh, the deficit ballooned again. The surplus seemed a distant memory. This year's deficit is $260 billion. $1.5 trillion has been added to the national debt since 2001.
Again, there has been much fear-mongering about what Democrats may do about taxes starting in January. The short answer is, nothing, because with a narrowly divided Senate and a Republican president, any significant tax increases are dead. But Congressional committees will have a bully pulpit to raise questions about the size of the deficit and who really has benefited from the Bush tax cuts. They will, if they are smart, look for revenue streams beyond the personal income tax, and point out that not all taxes are income taxes. They can take advantage of the fact a majority of Americans still hate the deficit and would rather see it reduced than have taxes cut further. The Dems could propose rollbacks of tax cuts on the very wealthy, and the public would support them. These rollbacks still wouldn't get past Bush or the Senate. But there is a chance to change the debate.
Republicans have tended, for the purpose of public argument, to lump all taxes together, and imply they are all personal income taxes targeting everyone. They prefer to gloss over corporate taxes as well as the benefits to the very wealthy. They like to pretend the patchwork political package of Bush tax cuts is perfect and shouldn't be touched, even though, of course, those cuts could be altered without abolishing them. They even embarrassingly gave huge tax breaks to oil companies right before oil price increases drove profits through the roof.
If there are hearings about all these things, we should rejoice, not cringe. And if the liberal old lions of the Democratic party overreach, there will be a backlash. I believe they know this, and I believe they will tread more carefully than some expect. But isn't it better to have this dialogue, even if it turns into a shouting match? Certainly it's better than the one-party echo chamber we have had for six years.
4. The rise of the moderate-conservative Democrat
I have mixed feelings about this one, because I disagree with these freshmen Blue Dogs on many issues. I'm to the left of them on gay rights, gun control, and abortion; and to the right of them on free trade and globalization. The combination of social conservatism and economic populism seems, to me, an uneasy throwback to the Dixiecrats of the '50s and '60s. But the reason their election is good news is that it may signal a cooling down of the polarization of politics that has poisoned our national dialogue for the last dozen years or so. (In fact, this began in the Reagan years, but it became much worse during the Clinton administration, and hasn't let up since.)
Democrats have opened up their party to non-ideologues who want to get things done. Maybe the Republicans will follow suit, although in the short run, Congressional Republican moderates have all but disappeared –- several of them were defeated on Tuesday night. But whatever one may think of them, Republican figures like John McCain, Susan Collins, and Rudy Giuiliani are much more popular with the general public than ideological firebrands. The public hates partisan extremism, and always gravitates toward the middle. For true believers, this always seems a disappointing compromise. For the rest of us, it seems the only way to stay sane.