The Center Can Hold
"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
...The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand."
If William Butler Yeats was with us to watch the Congressional elections, would his words be applicable to the results? Do we now have a second coming with the Democrats taking over Congress? Does it mean that the return of Democrats to power means a return to a more pragmatic, less ideological foreign policy? Some may wish to see it that way, not only among Democrats but also in Europe. But what can we expect for the next two years in this divided city?
In some ways, the Democrat victory represented the fact that the center can hold. The key victories assembled by the Democrats in the Senate were all achieved by centrists throughout the country, be it in Montana, Missouri, Pennsylvania or Virginia. Some of the races were extremely close. The winning candidate in Virginia, Jim Webb, is a former Republican. That might suggest that the country is still evenly divided, as reflected now in the Senate. In fact, over ninety percent of the incumbents were reelected from both parties. The change in the House represents a very traditional switch, not a landslide, in seats in the second term of a President. There remain a series of strongholds for both Democrats and Republicans that did not change their political stripes.
It was a switch in votes among independents and moderate Republicans that helped move the needle to the Democrats; however, this was a not an election in which the voters embraced the Democrats. The fact that the election was largely driven by a very contentious national issue -- the Iraq war -- also convinced voters to cast their votes for change. And there was also a widespread sense that one-party rule in Washington had contributed to a misuse of power, cases of corruption, and a sense that the old tradition of checks and balances in government needed to be restored. But this is a fragile majority for the Democrats. A switch of a few thousand votes across several states might have left the Republicans in charge of the Senate.
Yet where does this leave the Democratic majority and the President for the next two years? In particular, what does the foreign policy agenda look like? We remain confronted with the same problems on the global stage. From North Korea to Iraq, Iran to Afghanistan, there are any number of fires burning and the United States will need to be engaged in dealing with all of them. Having arrived at the Congressional majority for the first time in a dozen years, the Democrats will now have to persuade the voters that they can deliver more than complaints about the way things have been going at home and abroad.
The initial issue will be the continuing crisis in Iraq. Voters are concerned that there is no exit strategy, yet the eventual solution should not look like the pictures of helicopters over the Saigon Embassy back in 1975. On the other hand, there is no quick solution on the horizon. Voter disappointment with the war in Vietnam tipped against both President Johnson and then President Nixon in 1968, but it took another seven years for the final withdrawal of U.S. troops. The patience of voters will be tested now with the answers to questions about how long we will be in Iraq, Afghanistan, and where else the U.S. needs to be engaged. The debate about these and other issues will soon be taken up by all those who are considering a run for the White House in 2008. The debates in Congress, including the various hearings inevitably ahead, will provide a platform for these national arguments. Congress can set the tone for these debates, for better or for worse. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will have difficulty trying to forge the basis of a consensus within their own party, let alone across the aisle. And then there is the question about the receptivity of George W. Bush to compromise, something he has not been known for in the recent past. Perhaps he will need to revisit his term as Governor in Texas to learn how to do that again.
Perhaps a quick look at the situation in Berlin might reveal a few lessons. Chancellor Merkel is taking hits from within her own ranks for compromises with the Social Democrats and the same thing is happening within the ranks of the SPD. Some are already looking down the road at the next national elections which are three years away to see how the two coalition partners are going to position themselves to outrun each other, provided new elections don't come earlier. Keeping a firm hold on an agenda that is good for the country, not just for one party or the other, is a difficult task. Even more challenging is making clear to the voters why difficult decisions and policies are necessary. A year ago, the voters in Germany told the two large parties that they have a chance to get together and fix things. It has been a rough road and it will only get bumpier as more hard decisions need to be made. Yet the key to success will be found in both sides engaging in a pragmatic dialogue rather than a dogmatic debate.
Explaining why that is necessary is a primary responsibility of political leadership. Those who fail in that effort are punished politically. President Bush found out this week that he had failed to explain why the war in Iraq was on the right track. This time the Congressional elections were the medium for that debate; in two years it will be campaigns for the White House. The revelation at hand is the answer to the question: who will be stepping up to engage in that debate. But in this debate they will also need to do as much listening as they do talking. The voters have given Democrats and Republicans a reminder that they need to listen more to the voters in finding viable solutions for the future that benefit everyone, not just party bases. As Yeats would have it, the best ought to be able to deliver more on conviction and less on passionate intensity; whichever party does that best can aspire to have a "second coming" in office.
This essay appeared in the November 10, 2006 AICGS Advisor.