November 04, 2004

In November, 1972, Richard Nixon could be forgiven for feeling that his entire life had been vindicated. He had just won a massive victory, anhiliating George McGovern by one of the most lopsided margins in American history, and in so doing had defeated everything he detested in America: liberals, the Kennedys, peaceniks, blacks, Jews, and hippies. He had gone before the country, having governed in as divisive a manner as possible, showing his true colors, and he had not only prevailed, he had conquered. His assholishness had not been kept hidden; the Watergate break-in, and its association with his reelection effort, had been public knowledge for months, but it hadn't mattered. He had done it his way, and he had won. And thus, his epic fall from grace was inevitiable.

He couldn't have imagined it, but the forces that were to bring him down were already in play. Too many of the people he had bullied were still breathing, patiently waiting for the moment when they could strike back. He had not only created very real enemies, but he had very little support even from those who were his partisan allies. The consequence of stepping on other people to achieve your ends, especially when they are supposed to be on your side, is that few will come to your aid when the mask of infallibility is stripped away, and your human faults lay exposed to the world. And so, throughout 1973 and 1974, when the full depravity of the Nixon White House was revealed, he had no one to rally to his aid, to defend him out of a sense of loyalty and obligation.

I thought of that while listening to the President's press conference this morning. After one of the closest elections in history, with a country dangerously riven across ideological and cultural lines, when true leaders should offer an olive branch to their vanquished foes, Bush instead demands surrender. Three years after one of the most terrifying days in our history, when we as a nation were never more unified, he announced today that he would work with only those members of the opposition who saw things the same way he did (which, with the retirement of Zell Miller and the disappearance of the southern Democrats, can now fit comfortably into a White House linen closet). The hubris of that demand, only days after almost losing a national election to a left-liberal Massachusetts Democrat, is breathtaking.

Some are now calling on us, the defeated, to accept those terms of unconditional surrender, to put aside the bitterness and rancor of the last four years, and to pay allegiance to his agenda. Tuesday marked a sharp defeat for the Democratic Party, especially in races for the U.S. Senate, where five seats in the South were lost, and the party is at its lowest ebb since the election of Herbert Hoover. But although we still have a ways to go to become a majority party again, there is a big reason why Democrats are in no mood to be conciliatory: by sharpening the lines of division, and by achieving victory not by an appeal to voters in the middle, but by focusing almost solely on his ideological base, George Bush has insured that a large opposition to his agenda will not only continue to exist, but actually thrive, without any fear of harm.

Looking at a map of the United States, one can see the outlines of a broader problem to our national politics. The Democratic Party now dominates the West Coast and the North Atlantic region, while the Republican Party controls the South and the states in the Great Plains and Big Sky regions. For all intents and purposes, the other party no longer exists in those areas. A two-party system continues to exist in the Mid-West and in some Rocky Mountain states, as well as Florida, and national elections will continue to be won and lost there, but for 75% of the country, there is no partisan competition as such.

What that means is that Democratic officeholders in Washington are increasingly detached from any sort of political threat from the other side. If one looks back at other recent turning-point elections, such as 1974, 1980 or 1994, the defeated side not only lost a lot of incumbents, but many of those who won did so by the skin of their teeth. Having a political near-death experience was chastening, and it made the losers less willing to obstruct the legislative goals of the winners.

But this time, one would be hard-pressed to find a Blue State Democrat so inclined. At the same time Bush was winning the popular vote, and the Republicans were snatching up open Senate seats in the South, candidates like Barbara Boxer, Patty Murray, Harry Reid, and Russ Feingold, who six years ago all had tough, competitive races, each won decisive victories over their opponents. Illinois, which voted Republican in every Presidential election from 1968 to 1988, and which elected an unbroken string of GOP governors for almost thirty years, sent an African-American to the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly. To say that incumbent Democrats in the House had it easy would be an understatement; outside of Texas, where a crooked mid-term gerrymandering picked off four Democrats, one would hardly have known that this was supposedly a big Republican year.

Thus, there is no political incentive for Democrats to compromise in any way whatsoever with the Bushies. In fact, it is in their own best interest, from a nakedly partisan standpoint, to be as inflexible and obstructionist as possible, since there is no longer any real political cost in being so, whereas being perceived as a compromiser invites a primary challenge, which is now the only real threat to one's political career. And of course, the same has become true in areas dominated by the Republicans; if one can get elected to the Senate by supporting the execution of doctors who perform abortions, or by demanding the firing of all pregnant schoolteachers who are single, or by claiming that one's opponent bore a strong resemblance to Uday Hussein (and in each case, defeating Democrats from the center-right of the spectrum), there is little incentive to reach across the divide to find common ground.

That is the true political legacy of the first four years of the Bush Administration. In a way, his throwing down the gauntlet today was a relief. Having to accept defeat is tough, and agreeing to let bygones be bygones is always so emotionally difficult, since it entails having to acknowledge our own faults as well. Since the President intends to exhibit "leadership" the next four years the same way he did the first four, by using his power and his "iron will" to steamroller any and all opposition, and to impose the narrow, homophobic agenda of his base on the rest of the country, it means I don't have to go through the difficult task of soulsearching, of trying to figure out what my share of the responsibility is for the national divisions. If he wishes to govern as President of the Red States, not President of the United States, I don't have to give him my allegiance, since I am proudly not a Middle American. I don't have to identify his goals as mine, or see his wars as being America's. Since no quarter is to be given, none will be offered.

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