Bush's Big Gamble
If I might stand back for a moment from all the last-minute hysteria and offer a big picture observation, it seems clear that both the photo finish in this presidential election, and the incredibly savage tone of so much of the campaign, go back to a momentous decision that George W. Bush and his handlers made not once, but twice, since he took office.
Upon becoming president in the most controversial decision since 1876, and having lost the popular vote, Bush could have governed in a way that reflected a genuine commitment to bipartisanship, and a genuine humility about the lack of any real mandate for the conservative ideology that, after all, he mostly hid during the 2000 campaign. But he chose otherwise, and on September 10, 2001, looked well on his way to being a one-term president.
After 9/11, Bush had a second opportunity to unite the country, move beyond his conservative base, and maybe even get a few important things done outside a right-wing agenda of perennial tax cuts for the wealthy. But instead, he saw in the understandable preoccupation of the electorate with national security a path to re-election based on even greater partisanship, suppemented by an audacious effort to reward powerful constituencies and use the prerogatives of office to entrench himself and his party through any means possible.
From beginning to end, Bush has sought to do something which no major party presidential candidate in living memory has succesfully done: win by abandoning the political center altogether.
Now, many people on the Right, and even some on the Left, will tell you this supreme gamble is admirable because it shows Bush, Cheney and Rove would rather stick to their principles than compromise. But Bush's re-election tactics show otherwise: they have heavily depended on things that have nothing to do with conservative principle, including relentless efforts to smear his opponent and distort his record and platform; appropriation of religious and patriotic symbols; deliberate promotion of divisive and phony cultural controversies; scare tactics that warn voters that a change of administration could lead to their fiery deaths; and construction of a cult of personality aimed not simply at mobilizing conservative voters, but at whipping them and their opponents into a frenzy of passion and hate. They've done this because it's the only way they have a chance of winning without compromise or quarter--of elevating "our team" over "their team" as though this was the Thirty Years War rather than a democratic election. And the Republican leadership of Congress, and increasingly, Republicans around the country, have adopted the same savage approach.
These thoughts occur to me because part of my day job is to think beyond the election to what Democrats and the country as a whole can do to deal with two immediate crises--in Iraq and in the federal budget--and innumerable long-range challenges ranging from the global economy to climate change to the baby boom retirement, in an atmosphere of anger and mistrust that exceeds anything I've ever seen.
If there is a purgatory, lots of us will be doing some hard time to cleanse our souls of the nastiness of this campaign. Lord knows I haven't felt this partisan in my life, and I've been an obsessive political junkie since 1960. But if anyone should be fearing actual hellfire for political sins, it's the president and his people, who have deliberately, with malice aforethought, engineered this situation, in the pursuit of raw power.
Should Bush win his big gamble, there's absolutely no reason to believe it will lead to anything other than more of the same.