Tuesday's ultimatum

Posted: Nov 08, 2006 7:01 PM

Partisans (both Democrats and Republicans) grieve especially, on Election Day Plus One, for individual legislators defeated, men and women, however few, who inspired confidence for whatever reason. Tenacity and right-mindedness, in the case of Rick Santorum. Geniality of intellect and an aura of idealism-in-hand, in the case of Jim Talent.

But on the big picture, what should one say, other than that if it hadn't happened, democratic governance would have been guilty of being asleep at the wheel?

Consider the event. A rejection of the policies of an incumbent president in Year Six is habitual. If it can happen to FDR and to Ike, it can happen to, well, anybody. President Bush gave over the last two days of the campaign to a single jibe: "They don't like ( )? Ask them what their plan is."

And if the campaign was mostly about the Iraq war, he made a solid point. Is Nancy Pelosi the voice of the opposition in the House? If so, what exactly is her plan? She is against the war and was against it from the beginning, but what is she now to do, if the results of Nov. 7 truly reflect national opposition to what we are trying to accomplish in Iraq?

The challenge posed by President Bush bounces back at him. What -- the dissenters at the voting booths were entitled to ask -- is your plan? If there is dissatisfaction, it is consummated by the replacement of the executive team. But these things do not happen in off-year elections.

It can hardly be doubted that if Mr. Bush had been up for re-election on Tuesday he would have been defeated. But inasmuch as he is still in office, what is reasonably expected? Mr. Bush has no "plan" other than a projection of the same plan that has failed. He can attempt to achieve success by more of the same, even if more of the same has given no evidence of a critical new life. If there is ahead of us a true departure from the program the administration has been following up to now, it must satisfy those whose rejection of existing policies was registered on Nov. 7.

It is sobering to remind ourselves that the alternatives open to Congress come down finally to categorical action. When Congress decided to act on the unpopularity of the Vietnam War, it passed a series of resolutions and laws that prevented President Nixon from taking basic tactical steps to thwart the total defeat that lay ahead for us. If comparable laws were passed today, they would forbid American money to be used in Iraq for hostile purposes, which would be tantamount to forbidding armed resistance to the claims of the insurgents.

Merely to suggest such alternatives is to remind ourselves of the inherent inadvisability of contemplating them. The Constitution makes the president the commander in chief. To permit the continuance of his responsibility while stripping him of the means to act is a device for modifying the Constitution, for which critics would be reluctant to accept responsibility. If a crisis is of such a reach, then the orderly procedure is the impeachment of the president.

But the people who went to the polls on Tuesday intending to register opposition to the war are not of revolutionary mettle. Still, they have found the means to make demands that the president will need to appease.

The analysts added, to the Iraq dissent, the wells of dissatisfaction over other executive derelictions. We heard from the solid base of conservatives who identify good government with the Republican Party. They spoke their opposition to a president who has not once used his constitutional power to resist spendthrift measures by Congress. He has not accosted directly, let alone relieved, the problems raised by helter-skelter immigration laws. And he simply gave up on reforming a Social Security system that cannot fulfill its commitments.

What this has meant is a dissociation from the normal allegiance a democratic republic feels for its duly elected leadership. And that dissociation was written by the voters' feet, making indelible marks on the sand.