- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 11, 2006

So now what happens?

Well, for his part at least, President Bush seems to have gotten the message the American people sent him about his leadership. Iraq is not where they want this country to be and they want it to end quickly. A day after receiving that verdict, the president acknowledged finally that things were going badly in the war by accepting Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation and replacing him with one of his father’s former chief advisers, Robert Gates.

Mr. Gates, a former CIA director and member of the first George Bush’s inner circle, is on the panel headed by former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton and former Secretary of State James Baker, named to present a plan for settling the Iraq situation. His appointment is a significant concession to the opposition leaders to whom Mr. Rumsfeld was anathema. Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi responded quickly that her party was interested in the bipartisanship necessary to end the occupation.

Nothing really surprising occurred Tuesday. It had been predicted for months as the polls reflected a rising tide of resentment from a public battered by a daily barrage of bad war news with no end in sight. Like the Vietnam years when the promised light at the end of the tunnel kept getting dimmer and farther away, the chief executive’s enthusiastic counseling that victory was the only solution fell increasingly on disbelieving ears. Define “victory,” please.

It will be up to the Democrats to respond to Mr. Bush’s public offer of consultation tendered in a press conference the morning after this bitter election. He urged them to give him their ideas and work with his people even before they take control in January. How we extricate ourselves from the quagmire of Iraq while finding a way to avoid the hideous potential of nuclear-armed Iran and North Korea is a puzzle that needs the fulltime attention of every elected official in this government. It requires, as President Johnson used to say, sitting down and reasoning together.

But it is fair to ask if that’s possible in the atmosphere of bitter partisanship that for almost two decades now has pervaded both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Can the Right and the Left even enter the same room without mayhem? One would not think so given the venomous rhetoric from both Republicans and Democrats.

Mrs. Pelosi represents one of the most liberal districts in the nation, San Francisco. As a youngster, she was tutored in the old-fashioned machine politics of Baltimore where her father was mayor and little quarter was given. Since becoming leader of the Democratic minority, she has been unstinting in her attacks on the White House and unrelenting in her refusal to compromise. Can she now bring the warring factions together?

Perhaps it is more important to ask whether she can control some of the more liberal members like Rep. John Conyers of Michigan who are looking for revenge for 12 years of Republican slights, including the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Mr. Conyers will be chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and has made it clear his agenda includes investigations into a number of administration activities.

Furthermore, can a president, who as the governor of Texas took pride in working closely with the opposition party, recover that ability?

One must hope the answer to all of the above will be a resounding yes, and that for the first time in years of negativism there can be a positive approach to government, despite the looming complications of presidential politics.

The message to the White House couldn’t have been louder or more emphatic. The public had lost faith in Mr. Bush’s handling of foreign affairs and by extension national security. It was a referendum on him.

For the Democrats, the message was equally clear. It was not a vote for but a vote against, and the victors should not claim more credit than they deserve for pulling it off. Republicans were trapped by an unpopular president’s mistakes with little or no way out. Mr. Bush and Mrs. Pelosi seem to understand this.

The demands on the Democrats are certain. The voters want them to help get something done, to work to resolve a bad situation and to end the crisis in confidence. If they continue with business as usual on Capitol Hill, it will be a real disaster for this nation. The ball is now, as they say, in their court.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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