Hitting a New Political Stride

AS a result of the September attacks, Americans are seeing the traditional political gears grind more slowly, if not come to a full stop. Like the president, members of Congress also are rightly focused on terrorist issues at home and abroad. But the traditional political timetable remains in flux, with candidate fundraising efforts minimized and direct-mail solicitations reduced, or halted. President Bush appropriately has put appearances at fundraisers on hold. Under the current extraordinary circumstances, he appears to have realized that a war president's full-time duties are ample - without adding thousand-dollar-a-plate dinner parties to the schedule.

Eventually, however, the wheels of democracy will naturally turn more broadly toward the business of electing representatives, senators, mayors, and governors in 2002, and a president in 2004. There's legislative work to be done, issues to debate, and democracy to carry forward.

The political aftermath of terror attacks could also put needed brakes on what had been fundraising-run-rampant. In 2000, the Republican Party raised a record $715 million, an astonishing amount from soft-money donors. Democratic Party coffers filled up in excess of $520 million. Getting back to that kind of "normal" certainly should be out of the question.

And when it comes to practicing politics, getting back to normal doesn't have to mean going back to "politics as usual." Negative ads, for instance, deemed to "work" despite a majority distaste for them, may not work so well anymore (not unlike violent portrayals in the media). Issue ads, which confuse voters and obfuscate facts, also may not be welcomed by voters. Honesty, forthrightness, and genuineness will mean more now.

Key campaign issues, normally established well ahead of midterm elections, also are uncertain, though there's little doubt that candidates will focus on terrorism-related subjects. Those subjects will incline candidates toward a strong show of unity against a common enemy.

The president's call for a unified nation must not subsume the nation's natural political processes. Politicians need not shy away from explaining their differences, or think it less than politically correct to stand firm in their convictions.

American democracy is built, in part, on the idea of disagreement over legitimate differences and vigorous debate. Americans can appreciate this now, more than ever before.

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