Who’ll Claim the Center?

WASHINGTON—A postelection stay in the cool, cloudy capital reveals a sober Republican Party attempting every day in conversations throughout Capitol Hill a rancor-free analysis of why the party lost, and in a way that was so killingly close and yet brutally decisive. There is a general sense the loss was not undeserved—this is an unusual attitude for runners just back from the race—and that it was not so much a vote for something as against something: them. And roiling, rudderless Iraq. And an unpopular president.

There is a sense the nation’s culture and politics are and have been changing, shifting, and agreement that the election was not a realigning one but could yet prove to be if, among other things, Republicans fail to step back, refind and rethink their philosophy, style, priorities and meaning. They must develop a conservatism that speaks for and to the times. And stop being pigs—i.e., earmarking careerists who started with belief and wound up with hunger.

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As for Democrats, they have a unique opportunity, one they haven’t had in 14 years, to redefine for the public what their party is. It is their chance to change their public label. Now, with the cameras of the country trained on Capitol Hill, they can throw off the old baggage of the 1960s and ‘70s and erase the cartoon version of their party, which is culturally radical, weak in its defense of America, profligate, McGovernite, bitterly devoted to the demands of its groups as opposed to the needs of America.

In 1992 the young Southern moderate Bill Clinton got a chance to erase the cartoon, and he did, for a while. But he quickly slid back, undone by his own confusion as to the purpose of his power, and reinforced the public’s worst assumptions about his party with everything from the health-care fiasco to using the Lincoln bedroom as a comp room for big rollers to horrifying fund-raising and personal scandals. What he did prove—and the area in which he did break away from the cartoon version of Democrats—was that he didn’t dislike money or its makers. He did nothing to harm Wall Street, little to slow the economy, displayed a personal tropism toward the rich. Beyond that he didn’t change his party’s rep.

Can Nancy Pelosi? She looked radiant when she was elected by the Democratic conference yesterday, and she was careful to speak—everyone was careful to speak—of children and grandchildren. No one held up a sign saying “We’re Normal,” but the message was sent.

Can the Democrats spend the next two years showing a moderate, centrist, mature face to the country? Republicans say—this is the big phrase—“It’s not in their DNA.” But betting on the other guy’s inability to change is not, really, a plan. And these Democrats, or many of them, seem a rising generation of pragmatists. They seem to know what’s at stake. If they scare America, they give Republicans a ready campaign theme for 2008: If you liked the crazy Democratic Congress, you’ll love a crazy Democratic White House.

Can they go down the center, or will radicalism of various sorts erupt and gain sway? No one knows. The Democrats don’t know. The answer is going to help shape America’s future political history. And it will help shape George Bush’s. If the Democrats are radical, he will look more reasonable, not only in the eyes of the public but of history. If the Democrats are moderate, I think he will do something surprising, and yet much in line with his personality and nature.

I am taken aback this week at the level of disenchantment with and dislike of the president and his men—not among Democrats, but among Republicans. On the Hill they no longer see the White House as talented and formidable. They see it as shuttered and second-rate. There are bitter anecdotes about the way the White House has rigged and controlled events, only to blame those who followed them when disaster ensues. There are more anecdotes about the president’s refusal or inability to absorb information he emotionally resists: the senator who kept telling him the past year what trouble the party was in only to be ignored, the former congressman who pressed the point with the president and received a tongue lashing. There is increased criticism too of the habit of high White House staffers to muscle critics, silence dissent, force obedience.

The Road Less TravelledIt is assumed by everyone, and accepted as truth that hardly needs expression, that the brilliant and independent Michael Steele was not chosen as head of the RNC for the simple reason that he doesn’t look like someone who’d simply take orders. Mel Martinez was chosen for the reason that he will. I heard talk of what is called “the list”—the lengthening White House list of those who are to be treated as enemies. A White House preoccupied with the petty gave too little attention to policy, to the big picture. Thus the history of bungles.

Old affection and regard for the White House and the president have dissipated. But fear remains. They have two more years, they have the power to nominate, they have money. And so a party that might begin the process of refinding itself by thoughtfully detaching from the White House will, likely, not.

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But I see a surprise coming.

What is the first thing men do when they’re drowning? They save themselves. With the waters rising on every side the president will attempt to re-enact his first and most personally satisfying political success when, as governor of Texas, he won plaudits and popularity for working hand in glove with Democrats. He accepted many Democratic assumptions—he shared them, it wasn’t hard.

The White House’s reaction to the recent election was, essentially, Now we can get our immigration bill through with the Democrats. That was a clue. I suspect the president will over the next two years do to Republicans what he did to Donald Rumsfeld: over the side, under the bus and off the sled.

He doesn’t need them. They’re not popular. They’re not where the action is. He’ll work closely with Democrats, gain in time new and admiring press—“Bush has grown,” etc.

This is the path he will take to build his popularity and create a new legacy. If the Democrats let him. It would be in their interests, so I think maybe they will.