Nobody "blew" it. Both the Kerry and Bush campaigns successfully turned on and turned out their troops, resulting in the kind of massive vote -- the highest percentage of eligible voters taking part since 1968, also a wartime election -- that should make America proud.
Fierce partisanship, rooted in policy disagreement and driven by 2000's "we wuz robbed" resentment, left the former voter apathy dead. This year's hot competition served a great purpose in putting millions more selves in self-government.
But there is a rhythm to politics -- a time to divide and a time to unite. Senator John Kerry's heartfelt and eloquent concession speech yesterday, hoping "to bridge the partisan divide," was in stark contrast to the fire last time. President George W. Bush, re-elected with a substantial popular majority, properly responded with "a new term is a new opportunity to reach out to the whole nation."
It would be foolish to deny the continued reality of that divide. On foreign policy, it pits hawk versus dove, idealist versus realist, uni versus multi. On domestic affairs, liberals and conservatives will clash, now more one-sidedly, on taxes and paternalism. On cultural values, 11 states rose up against gay marriage, which had much to do with mobilizing the evangelical right.
Can Bush stick to principles that elected him while taking some of the poison out of the political atmosphere? The atrophy of the usual checks and balances requires a certain internal restraint.
Danger comes from the temptation to bull ahead that awaits lopsided government. Bush has the re-legitimated White House power backed up by a more rightist House of Representatives, now bolstered by a Senate with a 55-to-45 Republican majority. On top of that array of political muscle, a Supreme Court already tilted slightly rightward will soon be ready for an infusion of new justices.
This imbalance will ultimately trigger Rayburn's law: "When you get too big a majority," said Speaker Sam Rayburn, a Democrat, after president Franklin Roosevelt's 1936 landslide, "you're immediately in trouble."
Another danger to Republican self-restraint is the Democratic Party's post-Clinton ideological split, the central cause of its widespread losses this year. The isolationist, union-financed Deaniac left will unfairly attribute Kerry's defeat to his ambivalence on Iraq. This will erode the minority discipline that had been enforced for a decade by the Senate Democratic leader, Senator Tom Daschle, who was just trapped in the Republicans' senatorial avalanche.
Republicans are hoping that Democrats will pick Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, a well-liked journeyman politician who is only fair on television, to replace Daschle as minority leader. A stronger choice to speak for the Democrats and dicker with the majority leader Senator Bill Frist for compromises on Bush's initiatives would be Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut. The strongest choice would be Kerry, world-class TV debater, who now understands where the nation's power center lies. (Bush should offer a domestic Cabinet post to Daschle, an understanding politico who can be depended on to turn it down).
What initiatives would bridge the divide while keeping campaign promises? Legislation to set up personal retirement accounts in Social Security, along with appointing a commission that would recommend raising the retirement age to 70 for those now under 50. In Iraq, follow Kerry's campaign advice to attack Falluja, the terrorist haven, and take up Kerry's suggestion of a cordial summit with French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and other allies seeking rapprochement before their own dreaded election tests.