By contributor
updated 11/23/2005 9:55:21 AM ET 2005-11-23T14:55:21

WASHINGTON – This place feels empty. Blessedly so. It’s been a loud, nasty season. Peace and quiet are welcome.

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Congress is gone, near fistfights and all. George W. Bush, his political clout in tatters, touched down from Asia just long enough to pardon a ceremonial turkey. Then he (the president, not the turkey) flew to Texas.

Other transients are leaving, too. Federal Washington is more like a college campus than a city. Waves of the ambitious come ashore here each year, eager to do good or well. If they decide to stay, it can take decades for them to feel as though this is “home.” And even then, lifers go elsewhere for holidays. They commune with the world beyond the Beltway by immobilizing themselves in SUVs on I-95 or in shoeless, snaking lines at airports.

Me, I’m going nowhere, even though I bought an EZ Pass the other month, just in case. My family and I chose to hunker down. That gives me some extra (non-driving) time to consider what I have seen here in the last year, to look at what might lie ahead, and to give thanks, as the Pilgrims first did, for the blessings of being an American.

Alas, poor unity
A chapter has just ended in the life of the country, the chapter that began on 9/11. We came together in the aftermath of that still-unimaginable catastrophe.

The emotion of unity lasted long enough to get the president reelected a year ago. My sense was that the voters were not going to give Osama & Co. the satisfaction of ousting Bush, almost no matter what, and yet the insular and not particularly ept John Kerry almost won. Bush claimed a mandate. By the statistical standards of history, he was justified in doing so. The Second Inaugural Address he gave was astonishing in its neo-Wilsonian sweep. The rhetoric was grand. But the country wasn’t buying.

So as the year winds down, the post-9/11 consensus has vanished, blown away by the bloody predations of evildoers in Iraq; by the growing belief that Bush was sloppy at best, dishonest at worst, in claiming Saddam Hussein possessed WMD, and that the dictator was itching to use them; and by the farrago of ineptitude called FEMA.

Most Americans no longer believe the central justification that was offered for war in Iraq. They no longer believe that the president is an honest man or an effectively strong leader. They no longer believe that going to war in Iraq made us safer here at home. And they are beginning to think that maybe we should just get the hell out. 

No wonder Bush loved Mongolia. My colleagues in the White House press corps reported that he seemed relieved to be able to spend a few hours there. Nothing like a 36 percent job-approval rating to make you feel fondly towards the vast, empty steppes of the Far East.

Perhaps Bush was thinking jealously of Genghis Khan, who probably didn’t need to be concerned about the polls and pundits. He just conquered a lot of territory, and that was that.

Would that it were that simple. It’s not. Voters are worried, perhaps more than ever, about what the president and Vice President Dick Cheney, and the rest of the Bush Administration now call “Islamo-fascism” or “radical Islamist fundamentalism.”

But those same voters on this Thanksgiving seem to doubt that Bush’s Cowboy Khan approach is wise, at least in Iraq. They’re becoming more inclined to think that it was, is, folly. Too many American (and Iraqi) lives have been lost and too much money has been spent for the amount of “stability,” let alone democracy that has been achieved. Maybe it’ll settle down after the national elections there on Dec. 15.

We have to hope so.

So now we enter a new chapter in the story. It’s not about how we got in, but how we get out. And it is about whether the Democrats have an answer to Bush’s Cowboy Khanism that comes across as something other than a battalion of hypocrites marching in their Birkenstocks to the United Nations or to the European Union. And we can't just bug out of Baghdad, leaving the country to consume itself in a civil war that would only serve the bloody interests of terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The Democrats have to come up with a foreign policy that is as “tough” and patriotic as the president’s, only smarter. They have to be more internationalist in their approach, but without seeming to concede an inch of sovereignty or purpose.

Good luck.

Truth is, most of the Democrats who voted to authorize the Iraq war harbored doubts about the justification for, and the strategic wisdom of invading Mesopotamia. But in the fall of 2002, they were afraid to vote “no,” and in the spring and summer of 2003, they were afraid to ask “why?”

Cheney is half right in calling them out on this. True, the Dems didn’t see all of the raw intel that Cheney and Bush saw. But they saw enough, and heard enough questions, to have concluded – if they had wanted to – that there was not enough WMD to warrant war.

Now the Democrats are tacking left. Some say they made a mistake voting for the resolution. Former Sen. John Edwards is one.

Others say that, had they known then what they know now, they obviously wouldn’t have voted “yes.” Sen. John Kerry is one.

Some, like Sen. Russ Feingold, want to make dramatic reductions in troop strength by the end of next year. Kerry wants to start with 20,000 more or less right away (there are more than 150,000 American troops in Iraq right now).

Democrats and Republicans alike are convinced the Pentagon will begin withdrawing substantial numbers of troops soon after the Dec. 15 election, almost no matter what.

I’m told that one reason Rep. Jack Murtha said “pull out now” is that he he had become convinced by his excellent sources that the Bush Administration was going to bail. Why, Murtha asked, should he still back a war that, in private, the brass was preparing to walk away from?

As the Democrats search for voices and alternatives, Washington will move from a presidential chapter to  a congressional one. Bush looks to be in little more than a political holding action from here on out, an extraordinary situation given that he still has more than three years left in his second term. Unless the mood changes dramatically (and never say “never” in politics) he is about to become the earliest-arriving lame duck on record.

Generally these days, the media barely covers Congress. But that changed in the weeks before Thanksgiving Recess – first with Sen. Harry Reid’s “close the Senate” Democratic stunt, then the Senate vote on an Iraq withdrawal timetable, then Murtha’s dramatics. I have a feeling I will be spending a lot of time on the Hill in the next year, which I am lucky and privileged to do. It can feel like an inspiring place.

One reason, believe it or not, is the artwork, especially the wall paintings. The corridors and ceilings of the Capitol are covered with endearingly earnest, and sometimes quite good, work of Constanino Brumidi, who brought his gift for fresco from Italy in the mid-19th century. He spent much of his later life decorating the place, and what you feel as you walk the corridors are his great immigrant’s love of his new country, and his belief in the ideals he was trying to express.   

It can be an eerily calm and beautiful place, especially at night. I was there late recently, after Republicans and Democrats had nearly come to blows on the floor of the House. The place was empty. It had the feel of a cathedral, or even a corridor of the Vatican. But it is a cathedral in which the sacred words were not prayers, but political arguments.

Has the president been careless with the power and trust we gave him? Perhaps. We’re going to need to hear more from him about that next year.

President Bush will need to talk in a more open and candid way if he expects his next three years in the White House to amount to much.

But here is something that Osama Bin Laden will never understand: It is our freedom to argue – on the floor of the House or anywhere else – that keeps us free, and that, ultimately, will give us the strength to defeat any enemy. And for that liberty to argue, we give our Thanks.

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