On the Brink

W. on the verge of power, America at the edge of the abyss

As with health, so with the environment. Bush has pledged to authorize oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and environmental activists expect him to de-designate some of the lands that President Clinton set aside as national monuments. These actions would occasion battles around some very tangible and beautiful tracts of land, however; the environmental groups would have no trouble rallying a great deal of public opposition to such proposals.

But exciting concern over a dog that doesn't bark in the night—over, say, the Bush administration's failure to do anything about the Kyoto Protocol on Global Warming—will be far more difficult. Organizing against sins of omission, which in a Bush administration will be legion, is the hardest kind of organizing. A proposal to privatize Social Security will provoke a torrent of opposition, but there aren't likely to be many marchers protesting a failure to expand the Children's Health Insur ance Program. In fact, all thoughts of making America's safety net more secure will be downright ridiculous. "We'll be fighting with all our resources to maintain a lousy status quo in health care," says Skip Roberts, national legislative director of the Service Employees Inter national Union.

Politically, the Republicans now have total responsibility for what Washington does, as they have not since the first two years of the Eisenhower presidency. And given the narrowness of their margin, they have a very limited ability to get anything done. For the Democrats, this is an opportunity, though one they'd rather not have; for the nation, this is a crisis.

There will be time enoughto worry about what will happen to the nonwhite, the nonstraight and the nonaffluent, to global warming and nuclear proliferation if Bush prevails. For now, we can brood on Gore's failure to develop a coherent message for his fall campaign, just as he failed to provide one in the spring. Only on the night when he accepted his party's nomination in August did he really have one—and that was enough to catapult him into the lead for nearly two months thereafter. We can brood on a man so unsure of his merit that he was constantly polishing up the smallest details of his résumé; and on a party so unsure of its identity that its major funders and its volunteer cadres are diametrically opposed on the central issue of our time, globalization. We can brood on the thought that if Gore loses, one of the three Democratic front-runners in 2004 will be our very own Gray Davis.

Or we can brood on the thought of W. as president. (What was it French President Valerie Giscard d'Estaing said after meeting Ronald Reagan? "Je n'ai jamais rencontre un tel imbecile." Valerie, you spoke too soon.) We can brood on how a republic that once elected Lincoln and FDR is today on the verge of entrusting the most powerful office in the world to this dimwit. Once upon a time, we were a serious country—though I don't know how we'll get our children to believe it.

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