Tuesday, November 13, 2001

Having spent the past couple months in this space on weightier matters, I thought I might look at the pre-September 11 subject of this column, namely, what’s going on in politics. It’s clear that the pre-September 11 political world is gone, but it’s entirely unclear now who best understands the post-September 11 concerns of American voters.

To generalize about the period that can now be said to have come to a close the day the twin towers fell, I would say that both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party had learned enough about themselves and about voters to fight each other to a draw. This was spectacularly evident in the 2000 elections. Across the board nationally, we had what can only be called a tie, at the presidential level as well as in the House and Senate.

This was no mere happenstance. The parties spent the late 1990s rapidly converging, as Republicans sought to shake off the lingering liabilities of the Gingrich Revolution of 1994 while maintaining the enthusiasm of the conservative base, while Democrats tried to incorporate progressive themes appealing to the liberal base of the party while maintaining the centrist policy direction of the Clinton years.

Some analysts talked about that famous red-and-blue map of the 2000 presidential vote as a portrait of an America sharply divided in outlook. There is certainly something to this, and heaven knows the hard-core partisans of each party have both very different points of view and very negative opinions of their opposite numbers. But that map is misleading in that the last thing you could call the 2000 presidential contest is one in which the parties set out to draw sharp distinctions between each other. Either would have regarded that as too risky. In looking to find a majority, both parties worked not outward from their ideological bases toward the center, but from the center either leftward or rightward to keep their bases in line. In both cases, an appeal moored in the ideological base was deemed too potentially off-putting for voters in the center.

There is a lot more to say about this hard-fought political draw. But what seems especially noteworthy now is the extent to which it may have been predicated on the “easy” politics of peace and prosperity.

Put it this way: If your problem is how best to allocate a $2.6 trillion budget surplus (or whatever that figure was) between tax cuts, debt repayment and government spending, then you really are (as my Danish friends say) sitting in a butter hole. You have maximum leverage not only to craft the policy you favor but also to cover yourself on other fronts. In the case of partisans, I’d say you have the luxury of indulging your convictions without displaying them. When your opponents attack your “true” agenda, you have many little piles of strategically targeted money to point to as you say, “no, no, no.”

Not, mind you, that it was “easy” for the two parties to figure all this out. It was often painful (see Bill Clinton November 1994, Newt Gingrich February 1996). But figure it out they did.

I can’t see any reason to think that politics is going to quickly become “easy” in this sense again. This war on terror is apt to be long: I have no idea whether Osama bin Laden has a nuclear weapon, as he claims, but like most Americans, I think I have a pretty good idea of what he would do with one if he could, and I don’t have a very good idea of what to do about it. Meanwhile, who knows where the bottom for the economy is, and who knows what government finances will look like a year from now? The political question, across a whole range of subjects, is the same as it always is: What should we do? But the answer is no longer: anything you want, since the consequences are negligible. It is now necessary to make choices that actually exclude other choices.

So far, with regard to matters strictly pertaining to the war effort, there has been a remarkable degree of consensus in Washington. Given the magnitude of the threat, that’s a sign of political health. As for other political topics, the general phenomenon is that everyone who wanted something done in the world of Sept. 10 now thinks September 11 proves it’s even more important to do it. This is old thinking.

I doubt it will last. The foreign policy and national security components of the Bush administration undertook a remarkably serious and swift transformation into a war presidency. They didn’t make it hard for anyone to join the consensus. The rest of the administration, the Congress and the political parties have not yet managed a corresponding transformation, nor is it likely that when they do, the result will be a domestic politics of consensus.

Pollsters tell us that voters are suddenly overwhelmingly undecided. That means politicians are once again thrust into the position of hard choices about what is right to do and what isn’t with the certain knowledge that there will be political effects, but with remarkable uncertainty about whether their choices will prove popular.

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