Okay, so this is a big week for what's next. Today, as you might have noticed, is Election Day (and anyone eligible to vote who chooses not to will get nothing but derisive and mean-spirited ribbing from this blog). Ever-tightening polls seem to indicate that the Dems may well be able to at least retake the House of Representatives (God willing and the creek don't rise, knock on wood). In international news, on Sunday Saddam Hussein was (shock) convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death by hanging. Both of these milestones call up the inevitable question: So?
What if the Democrats do gain a majority in the House (or, by the grace of God, Congress as a whole)? One thing to remember is that they wouldn't suddenly be in charge of the government. In fact, they'd be riding shotgun to a president who, despite his protestations of bipartisanship and his self-identification as "a uniter, not a divider," has so much contempt for the Democrats that he'd probably sooner set Nancy Pelosi on fire than negotiate a compromise on any anti-terror or Iraq War legislation. Unless the Dems can somehow acquire a veto-proof majority (and it's a slim chance, but it's a chance), they'd be fighting an uphill battle against a man who is entirely uninterested in being their ally.
It may sound like I'm making excuses for a potential do-nothing Democratic Congress, but that's not it. Congress should always do something. It's been a major sin of the current Congress that they haven't done anything, haven't accomplished anything, haven't used a red pen when they've got a rubber stamp handy. I'm just trying to keep expectations realistic. The sky would not open up into a beautiful rainbow as unicorns fly down and shower gold coins on the grateful people of America simply because the party of accountability was back in power. But marking the bubble next to "D" instead of "R" isn't some fruitless action resulting in "new boss, same as the old boss;" it is worth it, and it can make a difference. Even without a majority in the Senate, and/or without the cooperation of our toddler of a president, there's a lot that the Democrats could accomplish:
Money. When Bush took office, he had a projected 10-year surplus of $5.6 trillion at his disposal. Today, we're looking at a deficit of $2.9 trillion for that same period. Even taking into account the ever-mounting costs of the Struggle to Halt International Terrorism, that's a lot of Junior Bacon Cheeseburgers lost to no-bid government contracts and tax cuts for the ridiculously wealthy. With the Republican rubber stamp well and truly retired, Bush's Paris-Hilton-esque government shopping sprees would have to come to an end. Taxes are going up, people, and you're going to have to suck it up; that's how the government gets money to run things. But with Bush's tax cuts redistributed to actually benefit the middle class, and with fat-trimming on irresponsible government spending, that necessary tax increase could have a lot less impact on your standard of living. Hello to fiscal responsibility.
Oversight. Does anybody wonder anymore exactly how we ended up in Iraq? How the administration got all of this intelligence, and some of it said, "Saddam is coming to get you!" and some of it said, "Chill out and think this through," and we ended up at war anyway? Does anyone wonder exactly what Bush is doing/has been doing/plans to do with his newly-legalized imperial authority to detain and wiretap and torture at will? Does anyone else wonder exactly how many Republican Congressmen have lascivious interest in the pages, and how they've gotten away with it? Does anyone else wonder how Halliburton has squeezed so much money out of the government and the Iraqi police have poo dripping through the ceiling? No? Just me? Moving on.
Domestic policy. Faced with the idea that most Americans aren't nearly as chuffed with our progress in Iraq as he is, Bush has recently pulled out the old, rusty saw of Social Security reform. Majority Dems could get to work on legislation that'll actually help the people they represent. They could wrestle energy policy away from the oil companies. They could wrestle Medicare prescription drug coverage out of the hands of the pharmaceutical companies. They could wrestle a minimum wage increase out of the pockets of big business. And maybe they could shut some folks the hell up about "protecting traditional marriages." Y'all, get over it.
But what about Iraq? Isn't Saddam's conviction supposed to be some shining beacon of hope in the Middle East? Does that make our efforts in Iraq worthwhile? Does Saddam Hussein swinging from a rope stop civil war in Iraq? Will it make his Sunni supporters and his Shiite detractors hug and go get an ice-cream cone? Are an estimate 400,000-600,000 Iraqi civilian deaths since the initial US invasion now justified by his execution? Death squads, torture, women in burqas, no electricity? Weren't things supposed to become hunky-dory as soon as we pulled him out of a spider hole in his grungy BVDs?
The aforementioned unicorns say no, and that's why foreign policy would still have to be the Democrats' steadiest focus. And it'd be more of a challenge, to boot, since it could only happen with the cooperation of The Boy Who Would Be King. But he's at least gotten as far as abandoning "stay the course," so we can give him that much credit. What Democrats need to do is chart a new course - and fast. It has to be with the input of the analysts and civilian and military leadership Rumsfeld and Bush have been so quick to push aside, and it has to include verifiable benchmarks and deadlines both for our military and for the Iraqi government. And as much as it pains me to say it, the US has to put its daddy pants back on; the Iraqi government is obviously not ready to govern on its own, but if US troops are going to remain in harm's way, the US government has to have some measure of authority over the country they're fighting for. Maliki can either accept both the help and the guidance and oversight of US forces, or he can accept none of it and we'll pull back to the borders. But our troops aren't beat cops in Los Angeles, and it's not fair to treat them that way when the enemy has IEDs and American-made firearms.
Congress, even with a veto-proof Democratic majority, can't make Bush change his foreign policy. In fact, contrary little squid that he is, he'd be more likely to brush off any Democratic suggestion and take the diametrically opposite tack just to remind them that he's still in charge. In that respect, the important thing to remember is that Bush would rather save face than save lives. If Dems could negotiate a settlement and, swallowing their pride, convince Bush that he'll come out the flight-suited hero once again, he may just give in. It's a pathetic way to do business, but you do what you have to when lives are on the line.
It won't happen right away. It might not happen by 2008, but even then, signs of progress should be apparent; the point of having a strategic plan with explicit benchmarks is that you're able to clearly chart progress. But it'll be a slow progress, because there's a lot to address, and it absolutely has to be done right. As unfair as it is, a Democratic Congress would have the reponsibility of fixing every damn thing that the Republicans have so royally screwed up for the past six years, and that'll take time. A whole lot of precious time. It's gonna take patience and time. To do it right.