Paul Greenberg

Dear Bewildered,

It is wholly a pleasure to answer your question about what that close congressional election in California last week augurs for the midterm elections come November.

You've come to the right place.

Not only can I give you a short, simple, expert answer but a couple of them - none longer than a headline - from two of the country's more esteemed wire services:

GOP Heartened by Calif. Congressional Win - The Washington Post

Electoral Victory Hardly Soothes GOP Nerves - Los Angeles Times

There you go. Take your choice.

Glad to have straightened that out for you. Come back any time you need clear direction about American politics.

My own take on what that election portends?

To borrow a line from Mark Twain, I am gratified to answer your question. I don't know.

Because it's much too early to tell. Anything could happen between now and November; it's a fast-moving world. The American electorate is fickle, mercurial and yet somehow in the end it can show remarkably good judgment. How it does that has long been a mystery to rational minds.

My own highly scientific theory is that God looks after fools, drunkards and the United States of America. What other explanation can there be?

For what worldly, rational European thinker a few centuries ago would have looked on these little colonies strewn along the seaboard of a distant continent and foreseen what they would become? Faith explains more than political science can.

I can offer you only a couple of half-formed hunches about the upcoming midterm joust. Some of them have even been tested by recent experience.

For example, cultural/ethnic patterns will continue to matter more in this year's elections than economic issues, political theories or foreign policy. Which explains why abortion and gun control - excuse me, gun rights - will excite more voters than class or ideology come the fall.

My always highly fallible intuition tells me the big issue this year won't be Iraq or the economy but immigration. Immigration is going to be what the race issue was back in the bad old days - unless by some miracle, namely common sense, the politicians in Washington can come up with a comprehensive reform that defuses the issue. Even then demagogues will still try to re-ignite it.

Barring an economic meltdown, the old Democratic dream of rebuilding the Rooseveltian coalition on the ruins of another Hooverian presidency will fail to materialize. Because ever since the ideologues took control of the Democratic Party in the '60s, it hasn't been able to re-establish sustained contact with the American heartland. And the more fired-up its zealots, the poorer the candidates they support do in November. Call it the McGovern Effect.

The very thought of Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, as speaker of the House will be enough to energize the right and concern the center, and I'd guess those two categories account for about 80 percent of the American electorate.

Even when leading Democrats talk about God, express doubts about the morality of abortion, say they're tough enough to win the war on terror, promise to repeal the estate/death tax and generally seek to get in touch with middle America again, they sound phony, as if they're just reciting phrases they've carefully practiced.

There's no way to fabricate authenticity; people can tell the real thing. And the unreal. Until the Harry Truman/Scoop Jackson/Joe Lieberman kind of Democrat stages a comeback, the party will continue to founder. Republican failures alone do not translate into Democratic appeal.

Republicans have their own problems, and they're even more evident. How do you defend the necessity of a long, cruel twilight war with all its sacrifices and uncertainties? (That challenge hasn't changed much since the Cold War.) How do you talk economic sense when nostrums are so much easier to sell? How do you explain that the oil companies/neoconservatives/Halliburton/the rich aren't responsible for all the troubles in the world?

What Richard Hofstadter forever defined as the Paranoid Style in American Politics continues to sell - and neither party is above resorting to it.

In this kind of election year, the instinctive demagogue has it all over the principled leader. The demagogue doesn't have to think; he just reflects whatever fear or anger is most prevalent at the time.

It's only the leader with a conscience who may be caught agonizing over a hot issue, torn between playing up to the crowd or leveling with it . . . until he finally does neither to any great effect. (Remember Adlai Stevenson?)

It won't be who wins or loses in November that fascinates some of us, but the challenge that confronts every politician: How much of his integrity is he willing to sacrifice in order to win? How much is integrity worth, anyway? Isn't it possible to be over-scrupulous, and so let the unscrupulous win?

Stick around. These midterm elections are going to be a great show and, at their best, a morality play.


Inky Wretch

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.