The Washington Post

It’s going to take some time to straighten out exactly what changed in American politics after September 11 and what didn’t change. Obviously, there is unity behind the war effort, and it looks like this unity will extend well beyond the first phase of Afghanistan “regime change.” What is striking in the foreign policy salons of Washington these days is the extent to which Iraq is a subject of debate not over whether to remove Saddam Hussein but only over how.

Insofar as unity behind the war effort is willy-nilly unity behind a Republican president, many Democrats have understandably found the experience stressful. Some of them are frustrated by the occasional interpretation of their support for the war effort as cynical, a product of fear of the administration’s overwhelming public support. On the other hand, it’s clear that some share with our European friends a certain resistance to Mr. Bush’s characterization of an “axis of evil” – if not because of a dispute over how bad the regimes are, then at least over the best way to deal with the problems they present. Many of those who are not bothered over the war are to one degree or another worried about spillover success for Mr. Bush in unrelated areas, the supposed “halo effect” described on the front page of The Washington Post last week. How to get a word in edgewise?

Republicans, obviously, would be perfectly happy with a new status quo based on Democratic retreat across a whole range of issues. But that isn’t what’s happening, either. For example, in the immediate aftermath of September 11, House Republicans found themselves wrong-footed politically on the question of airport security screening. There was probably no need to federalize the screening, but you can’t respond to a vast and amply justified public outpouring of worry about safety in the skies with an abstract argument against bigger government. You would need to explain to people how your proposal would make them safer than the other proposal, and the GOP wasn’t up to it.

Democrats got lucky on that one, in that they found their natural impulses to be in sync with public sentiment. On taxes, on the other hand, they were the ones caught wrong-footed. Trying to open up some political space for an argument with Republicans over the direction of the economy, they instead ended up arguing among themselves over whether they were genuinely opposed to the Bush tax cut – to the extent of being willing to try to repeal it or slow down its implementation.

Meanwhile, while Enron may not be the mother lode of scandal some Democrats had hoped, it has drawn blood on the question of corporate self-policing, a subject inconclusively opened at the end of the tech-stock boom. In general, market incentives cause corporations to behave themselves in a fashion that merits the trust of stockholders, customers, employees, etc. But not in all cases. Like it or not, this is the biggest obstacle to emerge in the path of economic liberalization since the deregulatory wave began more than 20 years ago. Many Democrats are now substantially pro-market – but not all. This is a political opportunity for the latter. They will be reaching out to the pro-market New Democrats, who may perceive a political interest (for the first time in a long time) in differentiating themselves not so much from the liberal wing of their own party as from the laissez-faire or corporatist GOP.

Finally, consider two other issues: campaign-finance reform and a prescription drug benefit for Medicare. If Congress manages to pass the former, a long-stated political priority for Democrats, I don’t see any reason to think Mr. Bush won’t sign it. And on prescription drugs, I think the likelihood is that Mr. Bush would be happier signing a bipartisan bill rather than fighting for a more “Republican” one. In both cases, Democrats are likely to win substantive victories though not necessarily political victories in the form of credit redounding mainly to them. This is both gratifying and frustrating, as Republicans learned during the Clinton years.

What do Americans make of this new political landscape? Well, they like it. In a Gallup survey for the Harwood Institute released Monday, 63 percent agreed that “I see small steps of improvement in how politics is going in America.” And 80 percent agreed that “even when there are major differences of opinion, our nation is able to engage in meaningful debate.”

Asked about post-September 11 changes in the “tone and conduct” of American politics, people are describing huge improvement. In terms of “candidates providing the important kinds of information voters need to make informed decisions,” 37 percent say things are better, 56 percent about the same, only 6 percent worse. Asked to assess themselves, 51 percent say “citizens are better at taking the time to really learn about the candidates and the issues,” with 43 percent saying about the same and 5 percent worse.

In the survey, 95 percent of Americans described themselves as somewhat, very, or extremely patriotic – no surprise. More telling, 96 percent said “most Americans” are somewhat, very or extremely patriotic. Whatever one thinks of those whose politics one disagrees with, it does not descend to a challenge at this fundamental level.

I think these elements of public opinion are more evidence of a new awareness in American politics, namely, that our political disputes, which once seemed to people like a war of all against all (think of Florida), actually take place within a frame of nationhood. That’s a sign of true political health.