Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A big-shot political consultant and strategist (who also came off as an arrogant prick) visited one of my classes a couple weeks ago. He had some interesting things to say about the evolving relationship between private interests and public policy. He also predicted a mild triumph for the democrats in the mid-term elections, specifically predicting that the democrats would end up with a narrow hold over the House of Representatives and the republicans still controlling the Senate. His thoughts on the intersections of private and public interests were pretty insightful, his election prediction obviously totally incorrect.

I was thrilled by the election, not so much for being a democratic party enthusiast but for the dramatic arc of it all. Today I was pretty excited listening to Nancy Pelosi and George Bush's separate press conferences. For the first time in years, it seemed to me that there's a real possibility of productive policies coming out of the federal government. I've found Pelosi kind of annoying in the past, but today she seemed very confidant and conciliatory. George Bush, for the first time as president, actually seemed humble and sincere in pledging to work with her. I wondered if Donald Rumsfled would have still been let go had the democrats not won so big, but who really cares. You move ahead with the election results you have, not the election results you might want to have (to paraphrase one of Mr. Rumsfeld's more condescending comments). Rumsfeld's being gone 12 hours after I was watching election returns is a fine-enough demonstration of humility for now.

The depressing this was this, though: George Bush should have been talking like this 6 years ago. Forgetting for the moment that his only executive office experience prior to being president was the governorship of Texas (a state whose governor is very weak, and whose main powers are informal), and that he ran bragging of being "a uniter, not a divider," neither of the last two presidential elections were anything near decisive victories. In 2000, there's good evidence that he actually lost the election (whether one counts the popular or electoral votes) and in 2004 he won by a terribly slim margin (indeed, only when you've lost your previous election can you claim a slim victory amounts to a mandate, as he did in 2004). The sum of what happened last night, across the whole country, at the congressional and local levels, that's a mandate.

For the next two years he has a chance to redeem himself. But I couldn't help but think of what was lost by his not striking this tone in 2000. We could have a totally different political climate now, we might even have less of a disaster on our hands in Iraq (and maybe found a way to have marginalized the lunatic running Iran, rather than have emboldened him). The last six years could have been spent re-building Afghanistan's social and political infrastructure.

The democrats will look good for a while, if only because the republicans have made it look so bad for so long. It will be hard to deride the democrats as the big government party when the conservative republican has grown the budget as much as he had, or made a big, socialist-style national education program* the signature legislation of his first term. As long as they develop policies based on pragmatism rather than ideology, the democrats can't help but look like dedicated professionals. I hope they do it, and I hope he helps them.

*This isn't merely my opinion, actually. It's also this guy's. Bruce Bartlett has some solid conservative republican credentials. He's not a pundit and he's not a talk show host. He's an economist, and a policy nerd. He wants his principles to work in reality; he doesn't let data take a back seat to ideology. He notes, ruefully, that ideology (with no data) is all the Bush administration has been using for 6 years.

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