Politics as a winner-takes-all game is a loser

  • Paul Larmer

 

There was a brief moment of civility the day after the bitterly fought presidential campaign. On that bloody Wednesday afternoon, John Kerry and George Bush both acknowledged each other and the need for the nation to unite again. Mr. Bush sounded humble when he said, "A new term is a new opportunity to reach out to the whole nation."

But not long afterward, in a rare press conference, Mr. Bush put on a different — and all too familiar — face. Despite the relatively tight victory, he told reporters, the election gives him a truckload of political capital, "and I intend to spend it."

The message was clear: "I won and you lost. Now, get out of my way."

There is no doubt that, with the Republican hegemony on Capital Hill and a Supreme Court that will soon tilt further right, this second-term president could reshape the American political landscape in ways not seen since the days of Lyndon B. Johnson. New policies guiding pre-emptive war, Social Security, environmental regulations, tax structure and abortion rights are all within the grasp of this administration.

But it would be a grave mistake for the Bush administration to assume it has full public support for this agenda, and that excessive grabbiness will not have lasting political repercussions.

On environmental issues in the West, the administration would be wise to be conservative. As we report in this issue, in pockets around the West, voters — many of whom backed Bush — showed that they care deeply about their land, air and water. They maintained tough regulations on industry, approved sensible alternative energy and public transportation measures, and even taxed themselves liberally to protect dwindling open space from development.

And in Idaho, as we highlight in our cover story, some environmentalists and Republicans are moving beyond party boundaries to find common ground on the wilderness issue.

But this kind of progress only happens when the leaders understand that a narrow victory is not a license for a winner-take-all power grab.

The Republicans, of course, aren’t the only ones who need a lesson in humility. Democrats need to ask themselves why their populist message of economic opportunity for the middle class hasn’t played all that well.

On the national level, at least, voters went for the candidate who claimed to represent their social and moral values, not their economic welfare or concern for the environment.

Until Democrats can find a way to bridge the populist divide — and it will take more than clever sloganeering — they will be relegated to the sidelines in much of the West. That leaves a wide-open field for the other party, which has yet to show it understands its own doctrine of governmental restraint.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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