When we wake up tomorrow morning, a new political era will have begun. The Democrats will have taken control of the House of Representatives and perhaps amazingly the Senate, suddenly finding themselves politically relevant for the first time in six very long years. And they'll have the unusual luxury of deciding how they will exercise political power. The President, on the other hand, will now find himself operating in a difficult political environment. At best, he can no longer expect Congress to rubber stamp his policies. At worst, by Wednesday afternoon, after his post-election news conference, he might find himself a full-blown lame duck.
How the President and the Democrats move forward is a theoretically open question. However, in practice, the question of what the Democrats will do is a far more interesting one, partly because Bush will realistically be constrained by a difficult war and his general inability to adapt, and partly because the Democrat slate is clean, and the possibilities for defining their direction are very real.
Moving into power, the Democrats will have three choices before them. Obstructing reflexively (a very real possibility); accommodating (a very unlikely possibility); and developing a well reasoned, defined and positive position somewhere in between obstruction and accommodation (a smart but not necessarily inevitable possibility). Obstruction seems most likely because it's the easiest thing to do, and because the Bush administration's style of ruling invites thoughts of revenge. But it's not the best way to go. The Democrats came back to relevance not on the strength of their ideas, but on the weakness of their opponents. And if they hope to convince America that they genuinely deserve this power, they'll need to develop a substantive platform and a smart approach to governance in general, and the Iraq war in particular.
Barak Obama is emerging as a very realistic candidate for the presidency because, unlike so many of others, he's developing a convincing argument that our nation should come before politics, and ideas before party. Right now, his new book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, is #5 on the Amazon top seller list, when most politicians' books come and go with very little notice. (The New York Times actually just ran a story on this.) And what makes Obama stand out, beyond his charisma, is his willingness to find a thinking center. When asked "How do you make people passionate about moderate and complex ideas?" Obama answers:
I think the country recognizes that the challenges we face aren't amenable to sound-bite solutions. People are looking for serious solutions to complex problems. I don't think we need more moderation per se... We just need to understand that actually solving these problems won't be easy, and that whatever solutions we come up with will require consensus among groups with divergent interests. That means everybody has to listen, and everybody has to give a little. That's not easy to do.
That kind of moderate, pragmatic, and not reflexively ideological approach is more of what the Democrats need. They need more substance and, even more than that, some more magnanimity. It gets back, I think, to how Richard Rorty, one of America's leading philosophers, starts out his short book, Achieving Our Country. There, he talks about how "national pride," an "emotional involvement with one's country," is "necessary if political deliberation is to be imaginative and productive." At this point, the Democrats badly need to put the country before partisanship and genuinely deal with the important issues that face it. That's the only way that they will take this opportunity -- one that is perhaps undeserved -- and do something with it that will build a sustainable future for the party and our nation.
Listen here to New Yorker editor, David Remnick, recently interviewing Barak Obama