Sunday, December 05, 2004

Mourning Has Broken

Austin, Texas 12/4/2004

In Jewish tradition there are two primary levels of mourning for a deceased member of one's immediate family. The first, lasting for seven days after the funeral is shiva, during which the mourner retreats from day to day life and is cared for by friends and other family members. The second, lasting until thirty days have passed is shloshim, when the mourner begins the process of getting back to normal responsibilities but avoids things like wearing new clothes or atending social gatherings.

And so has it been since the recent presidential election. The shiva period was -- as is always the case -- difficult and disorienting; months of hope, culminating in borderline euphoria as the initial exit poll results began to leak, had crashed down in the matter of a couple of hours as we watched helplessly. The future had suddenly become too bleak to contemplate. How could it be? How could it have happened? Had someone failed to speak the right incantations? We'd all (well, almost all) agreed to put specific concerns aside; there'd be plenty of time to deal with that later, after the moving vans had departed Washington for Crawford.

It was no time for thinking clearly.

Shloshim -- as expected -- was characterized by a more sober evaluation of what had transpired, as well as a more sober evaluation of what we might expect in the near future. The thinking was clearer, if not yet entirely clear. Recriminations, respectfully held back in the first days, were voiced. Major players blamed or were blamed, mostly both. Tactics that had been regarded as positives were considered to be negatives and vice versa. But the time for useful reflection had not yet arrived.

Now, finally, it has. And, as mourning has indeed broken -- and none too soon, I might add -- it is time for useful reflection. Bury the recriminations in a little box. Hide the blame under the stairs. If it's about strategy or tactics, shred it. There's time for all that; it's just that that time is not now. As the great lurch toward the incumbent's second term continues, slowly but surely the mask will begin to come off. Political debts will be repaid. And the creditors will be quite clear about the kind of currency they will accept.

The reflexive response will be to rail against these creditors. Again, now is not the time. These debts will be repaid. There's nothing that can be done about it. And the current reaction to it does not matter either. What does matter is what happens in twenty three months. Without the specter of (artificial) gains generated by further partisan gerrymandering, the next series of congressional elections will presage the state of politics in America for years to come.

Toward that end -- and at this particular time -- there are only three things that matter: Message, message and message.

Did I mention message?

Though there are two competing basic worldviews that dominate the current political landscape, the nearly down-the-middle split that could be inferred from the recent vote counts is an illusion. The fact is, we're winning. A large majority wants to be left alone in their personal lives while protected from the raw power of the few. It is only through the great skill -- all right, make that great political skill; this game is called politics, after all -- of the other side in terms of crafting its message and image (though not in that order) that it's even a contest. Well, that and the fact that we tend to have an unfortunate habit of playing nice -- as well as a general inability to do a terribly good job at playing nasty (when it seems to be indicated). That can be overcome, but only by directing the major effort at message, as opposed to tactics or strategy.

Why hasn't that been done up to now? Because it's hard, particularly because the things we stand for do not easily admit to seven word phrases screamed at the top of one's lungs. Subtlety is a curse.

So what is that message? Ah, if only I knew...

In any event, I shall hope to make some progress toward defining it in this space as time goes by.