Win or lose, democracy stands

Posted: Nov 10, 2006 12:01 AM
Win or lose, democracy stands

And now, ladies and gentleman, a final round of applause for the real winners of the midterm elections: The American people, democracy and, yes, Howard Dean.

Whether their candidates won or lost, Americans can't but feel grateful for a nation and a system of government that allows us every few years to peaceably reinvent ourselves.

On Election Day, no one had to step over a pool of blood to get to the polls; no one had to risk a sniper's bullet or an improvised explosive device to cast a ballot. And no one had to worry that sore losers might drag "traitors" from their cars for preferring a different approach to governance.

It is a remarkable thing, this process we take for granted; it is also good for the rest of the world to witness as Americans shift directions with civility and pledges of unity.

Whether those pledges hold is another matter, but the spirit implicit in the United States of America remains intact.

Following his party's "thumpin'," as the president described Tuesday's election results, George W. Bush articulated what is best about this nation. A reporter had asked how he could work with someone such as presumptive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who recently referred to Bush as, among other things, incompetent and a liar.

Bush replied: "I've been around politics a long time; I understand when campaigns end, and I know when governing begins. ... If you hold grudges in this line of work, you're never going to get anything done."

Imagine those words coming from a defeated Baathist.

Or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's as he stepped down. Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, Rumsfeld said: "I have benefited greatly from criticism, and at no time have I suffered a lack thereof."

We are all elevated in such moments when grace finds companionship in humility. That same humble acceptance was apparent among others who will be leaving government soon. All without gunfire, kidnappings or beheadings.

On Tuesday in Iraq, 16 civilians were killed and 22 others wounded when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a cafe in northern Baghdad. Americans exhausted by a war they feel was unnecessary can blame the Bush administration for those events. But they should marvel at the privilege and miracle of democracy.

In exercising that privilege, Americans have voted to change course, as the sound bite goes. That was the clear message to Washington. But the equally important message to the rest of the world went like this: See, we can do this. We are capable of being self-critical; we can be flexible; we can adjust without resorting to chaos.

However our enemies may interpret the outcome of the midterm elections -- or how much they may cheer Rumsfeld's departure -- they must have noticed that we manage to sort our differences without killing each other.

We fight with words and ideas rather than bullets and bombs. Then we make up and move on. While Bush promised to work with both parties, Pelosi vowed to make this Congress the most "open, honest and ethical" ever.

Even as we clutch our wallets, Pelosi's words have a certain lyrical quality in the world of Abramoff, Foley and Ney. And, frankly, who better to clean house than a woman who has raised five children?

Finally, it was Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who really won Tuesday with his 50-state strategy. While others in his party wanted to spend money on candidates, Dean insisted on rebuilding the party's infrastructure.

As one insider put it to me: "Dean's greatest weakness (stubbornness) became his greatest strength."

Dean spent millions paying and training staff in states where there was little or no party structure. The good doctor accurately diagnosed what ailed his party and produced the cure. He built the party, and the people came.

What the Democrats will do with their vote of confidence remains to be seen. We know what we know about power, and hubris is a nonpartisan opportunist. Where Republicans have wound up -- corrupt and scandal-ridden -- Democrats have been before.

And, of course, there's always the problem for the dog once he catches the car. Now what?

Of one thing we can be certain: Whatever happens next, Americans will keep the safety on and their trigger finger relaxed. And they will continue, as ever, trying to get this messy business we call democracy right.

That is a victory all Americans share.