Healing the Breach

Guest: Peter Levine, Deputy Director, CIRCLE, University of Maryland As President Bush begins his second term, there is a poisonous atmosphere of distrust and division in America. I am not sure that we are divided into two countries, one “red” and one “blue,” whose values fundamentally and enduringly conflict. In One Nation, After All, Alan Wolfe reveals a strong moral center and a great deal of agreement about goals and values. At the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama also emphasized public consensus, but he suggested that reporters and political operatives sometimes promote the appearance of angry disagreement for reasons of their own:

Yet even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America — there's the United States of America.

There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America. The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States.

However, even if our moral and cultural divisions are somewhat artificial and overstated, the fact remains that President Bush is a polarizing figure. According to the 2004 exit polls, 34% of voters “strongly disapprove[d]” of him (while 33% “strongly approve[d]”); 23% were “angry” at the incumbent administration (while 22% were “enthusiastic”); and 60% believed that the president attacked his opponent “unfairly.”

These feelings should disturb the President, even though they did not block him from winning reelection. As long as many people distrust and dislike him, he will have difficulty advancing his controversial domestic agenda. Implementing legislation will be as hard as passing it. For example, regardless of the merits of No Child Left Behind, this radical educational reform simply cannot work as long as most teachers and school administrators view it as an attack on them.

Besides, pervasive distrust and polarization can diminish Americans’ civic capacity. According to the Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow, when a large segment of the electorate loses “confidence in public leaders” (as happened during the Johnson and Nixon era), they also lose faith in their fellow citizens. We then become less able to address our social and civic problems together. Therefore, a great president would seek to “heal the breach” in the interest of democracy.

Incidentally, turnout was exceptionally high in the 2004 election, but that does not mean that our civic capacity is high. Distrust can powerfully motivate people to vote but then block them from working together.

Wuthnow advises that “deliberate repair work needs to be done to restore trust that has been damaged by broken promises, disrupted relationships, and fragmented self-images. If it is valid to say that being in love means never having to say you’re sorry, then it is appropriate to say that trust does mean saying you’re sorry. This point is worth underscoring because promises can be broken for so many reasons that it may be easy to take responsibility for fulfilling them.”

If the President wished to undertake “deliberate repair work,” then I think he should begin by taking clear and personal responsibility for things that went wrong during his first four years. He would have to acknowledge that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, even though he told the American people and the United Nations that there were such weapons and that they justified war. He would also have to acknowledge that the occupation of Iraq has proven much more difficult and unpopular than he said it would be. He could soften the blow by stating that he had truly believed the rationale he laid out for war; it just did not turn out to be true. He could conclude by calling on all Americans to help make the occupation a success. Ideally, he would explain what we can do to help.

Such a speech would be an interesting test of his opponents’ fairness. To some degree, I believe, liberal Americans are prejudiced against George W. Bush because of his accent, his demeanor, and his overt religiosity. Some despised him before he made any controversial decisions. In the exit polls four years ago, one quarter of voters said they would be “scared” if Bush won. However, even if some Americans began with a bias against him, they can now cite his attitude toward critics and criticisms as evidence that he is belligerent, unreflective, and closed-minded—a dangerous combination in a president. The following exchange (from the April 13, 2004 press conference) reinforces that view:

Q. After 9/11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have you learned from it?

THE PRESIDENT: I wish you would have given me this written question ahead of time, so I could plan for it. (Laughter.) John, I'm sure historians will look back and say, gosh, he could have done it better this way, or that way. You know, I just -- I'm sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hadn't yet. I would have gone into Afghanistan the way we went into Afghanistan.

Just this week, in an interview with the Washington Post, Bush interpreted his reelection as a ratification of his Iraq policy, even though the exit polls had showed only 51% of voters in favor of the initial invasion, and 55% said that things were going somewhat or very badly.

Lincoln was also a divisive president; his decisions contributed to a terrible, if necessary, civil war. However, on the occasion of his second inauguration, Lincoln chose to accept some responsibility for the conflict and acknowledged, “Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.”

Presumably, 99.5 percent of professional political advisors would warn President Bush against a Lincolnesque statement of regret. Perhaps they would be right. In Washington, it is important to show that you are confident and disciplined and not interested in negotiation. Nuance can be taken as evidence of a weak bargaining position or a willingness to split the difference. In the Middle East, nuance can be read as a signal that you are about to withdraw your troops. Pundits, opponents, and outright enemies stand ready to pounce.

Lincoln had prepared for his Second Inaugural Address with a lifetime of nuance and painful reflection, so his audience was ready to listen. (Besides, he had just won the war.) It may be too late for George W. Bush to engender trust among his domestic opponents, or even to gain a hearing. If this is true, then his political self-interest would be better served by rousing the conservative “base” with an unyielding, unapologetic speech. Nevertheless, I believe the president could restore trust by accepting responsibility. Both the country and his historical reputation would benefit.