Comment: Democracy and Dread

Marking the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks, America finds itself in an interwar funk. We go about our business as in peacetime, even as we seem to be drifting, inexorably, toward a new and more perilous Mideast conflict. While a few foreign-policy barons are in fierce debate, most Americans would rather not think about it. The mood is not exactly escapist so much as avoidant.

Describing New York in the fateful summer of 1941 (in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay), the novelist Michael Chabon wrote: "The rest of the world was busy feeding itself, country by country, to the furnace, but while the city's newspapers and newsreels at the Trans-Lux were filled with ill portents, defeats, atrocities, and alarms, the general mentality of the New Yorker was not one of siege, panic, or grim resignation to fate, but rather the toe-wiggling, tea-sipping contentment of a woman curled on a sofa, reading in front of a fire with cold rain rattling against the windows. รค Joe DiMaggio hit safely in fifty-six straight games, and the great big bands reached their suave and ecstatic acme in the hotel ballrooms and moth-lit summer pavillions of America."

While Americans are pleasantly surprised that life after 9-11 went on almost as before, cozy private contentment is hardly today's mood. On the contrary, there is a sourness, as one icon after another falls: the stock market, the heroic entrepreneur, the Catholic Church, even the comforts of baseball.

Most disconcerting is the absence of politics. Plenty is going on that invites political engagement -- the precarious economy, the administration's bellicose isolationism, the scandalous budget priorities, the alarmingly goofy views of the attorney general -- but all seem disconnected from national debate.

In many ways, this is an administration that can't shoot straight. The aftermath of war in Afghanistan is an unstable mess. The anthrax investigation was bungled. Homeland security is a bureaucratic monstrosity. The White House clambered on board a corporate-reform bill only after the measure was well down the track. President Bush's embrace of the hard right cost his party the Senate. With the stock-market meltdown, Social Security privatization is off the table. After ramming through a budget-busting $1.35 trillion tax cut mostly for the rich, Bush's latest tax scheme is more tax relief, targeted at what Bush supporters candidly call "the investor class."

With each passing day, another Republican foreign-policy eminence rejects Bush's Iraq policy. In the Vietnam quagmire, the "best and the brightest" of both parties insisted that war was imperative and victory feasible at acceptable cost. They were horribly wrong. Today's best and brightest Republicans -- the more hawkish of the two parties -- are counseling restraint.

All of this should be raw meat for the opposition Democrats. But somehow, this president, with nothing of Clinton's guile or Reagan's charm, gets a free pass. Several recent administrations, let's recall, found themselves besieged -- LBJ in Vietnam, Nixon during Watergate, Carter in the Iran hostage crisis, Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal -- but this administration is less barricaded than insulated. Many of its premises and strategies are palpable failures, but Bush doesn't seem to be paying the political price. Leave aside the estimable columnists of The New York Times -- Messrs. Keller, Krugman and Rich, and Maureen Dowd on a good day -- and Bush doesn't even get that bad a press.

When our last issue was being printed, on Thursday, Aug. 15, it contained a prescient critique by Harold Meyerson titled "The Democrats and Iraq." The next morning, I opened my Wall Street Journal and there was Brent Scowcroft's now famous op-ed piece. My first reaction as an editor was to curse the bad timing: By the time readers received their issues, the following Monday, Scowcroft's brave words would have given Democrats license to unleash a flood of dissent, and Meyerson's essay would seem behind the curve. Well, two more weeks have gone by, with James Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger, et al. chiming in -- and still nary a Democratic peep.

This administration should be on the defensive, on every front. But despite foreign-policy divisions that rival those of the Democrats during Vietnam, the Republican Party is not about to fall on its sword. What's missing is an opposition party with a strong story and the courage of its convictions, on the whole range of issues.

Our man Meyerson, reporting this time from Minnesota, gives us a glimpse of what such a party might look like. Sen. Paul Wellstone is in the fight of his political life. But he is actually articulating clear criticisms of the Bush administration and breaking conventional taboos, calling for repeal of the tax cut and questioning the drift toward war. And he is doing it by waging an old-fashioned ground campaign at a time when superficial TV spots may change a few votes but cumulatively deepen voter alienation. Yes, it's liberal Minnesota, but in recent years the Woebegon State has elected Republicans as often as Democrats, and, in a spree of what-the-hell cynicism, even elected a professional wrestler as its governor.

Whatever the national mood, there is no escape from the responsibilities of citizenship. Americans -- especially Democrats -- will either grasp that soon or pay the price of a reckless war, an unstable economy and a dwindling democracy.

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