Reaching for the Center: Realists Take Charge

The election whupping marked the end of George W. Bush's radical experiment in partisan government — and a plea for politicians to get serious about solving problems

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Robert Gates, President Bush's nominee to replace Donald Rumsfeld, speaks in the Oval Office of the White House.

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First, there is the muscular realism of the Democrats who ran the election campaigns, Schumer and Emanuel. They chose their candidates on pragmatism, not principle. Yes, many of the winners tended to be moderates, but that's because this was an election, especially on the House side, waged in moderate districts. In some cases, realism meant supporting the more liberal candidate. In Ohio, Reid and Schumer made a stark decision to force the attractive if inexperienced Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett out of the race and to support Congressman Sherrod Brown, a feisty paleoliberal whose vehement protectionism matched well with Ohio's economic desperation. In Pennsylvania, Reid and Schumer went with a pro-life candidate, Bob Casey Jr., despite shrieks from the party's pro-choice base. The common denominator wasn't liberalism or moderation but the ability to win. The question now is whether "winning" means blocking the President or demonstrating the ability to govern. It probably means a little of both, but I suspect the Democrats will be better served by proving they have the maturity to do the latter.

Why? Because the American public proved that it had the maturity to ignore, and in many cases rebel against, the sludge tide of negative ads that was splashed onto the public airwaves, primarily by Republicans. (A notable exception: Tennessee's Harold Ford Jr. was taken down by sleazy sexual innuendo.) Americans tossed aside candidates who had associated themselves with the corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and those who had been involved in sex scandals, and those whose position on immigration slouched toward anti-Hispanic racism, especially in the Rocky Mountain gubernatorial contests and several congressional districts in the Southwest. They chose candidates who, in the felicitous words of Colorado Congressman John Salazar, "have manure on the outside of their boots rather than on the inside." Nowhere was this more literally true than in Virginia, where the operative metaphor actually was footwear. The Democratic challenger, Jim Webb, wore his son's combat boots and the Republican incumbent, George Allen, wore cowboy boots that were unstained (on the outside, at least). Webb's successful antiwar campaign was about the fate of his son, a Marine lance corporal serving in Anbar province; Allen's campaign was a dreadful series of gaffes followed by a despicable effort to smear the Democrat by quoting sexually explicit passages from Webb's critically acclaimed war novels. This election was not only about a disastrous war and the stench of corruption, it was also about a style of politics--the slashing negative politics practiced by a generation of media consultants in both parties. It was a message to politicians: stop slinging the manure, and start getting serious about the nation's problems.

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