O.K., Folks: Back to Work

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

November 5, 2004

An iron rule of life is to be careful what you wish for.

President Bush can take his re-election victory to the bank, and his political portfolio has been bolstered by enhanced Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. That's the good news for the president. Nearly all the other news is bad.

A story in the business section of yesterday's Times noted, "Even as President Bush was celebrating his election victory on Wednesday, his Treasury Department provided an ominous reminder about the economic challenges ahead."

With budget deficits exploding, the government will have to borrow $147 billion in the first three months of 2005, a quarterly record. But the record won't stand for long. The government is hemorrhaging money, and the nation has a war to pay for. A new record is almost sure to be set before the year is out.

Managing money is not one of this president's strong points. Plus and minus signs mean nothing to him. If he were actually writing checks, they'd be bouncing to the moon. The federal government's revenue was $100 billion lower this year than when Mr. Bush took office, and spending is $400 billion higher.

Yesterday, at his press conference, the president made it clear that his campaign promise of more - not fewer - tax cuts for the wealthy is at the top of his second-term agenda.

Much has been made of the support Mr. Bush has gotten from religious people. He's going to need all of their prayers that some miracle happens to suspend the laws of simple arithmetic and keep his fiscal house of cards from collapsing.

Meanwhile, the situation in Iraq, overshadowed by the election, is as grim as ever. Insurgents blew up a critical oil pipeline on Tuesday, the latest severe blow to efforts to get the Iraq economy on track. Three British soldiers were killed in an attack yesterday. The assassinations, kidnappings and car bombings continued. The humanitarian aid group Doctors Without Borders announced that it would cease operations in Iraq because of the unrelenting danger. And Hungary became the latest U.S. coalition partner to announce that it would withdraw its troops from Iraq.

In other words, nothing has changed. Mr. Bush's victory on Tuesday was not based on his demonstrated competence in office or on a litany of perceived successes. For all the talk about values that we're hearing, the president ran a campaign that appealed above all to voters' fears and prejudices. He didn't say he'd made life better for the average American over the past four years. He didn't say he had transformed the schools, or made college more affordable, or brought jobs to the unemployed or health care to the sick and vulnerable.

He said, essentially, be very afraid. Be frightened of terrorism, and of those dangerous gay marriages, and of those in this pluralistic society who may have thoughts and beliefs and values that differ from your own.

As usual, he turned reality upside down. A quintessential American value is tolerance for ideas other than one's own. Tuesday's election was a dismaying sprint toward intolerance, sparked by a smiling president who is a master at appealing to the baser aspects of our natures.

Which brings me to the Democrats - the ordinary voters, not the politicians - and where they go from here. I have been struck by the extraordinary demoralization, even dark despair, among a lot of voters who desperately wanted John Kerry to defeat Mr. Bush. "We did all we could," one woman told me, "and we still lost."

Here's my advice: You had a couple of days to indulge your depression - now, get over it. The election's been lost but there's still a country to save, and with the current leadership that won't be easy. Crucial matters that have been taken for granted too long - like the Supreme Court and Social Security - are at risk. Caving in to depression and a sense of helplessness should not be an option when the country is speeding toward an abyss.

Roll up your sleeves and do what you can. Talk to your neighbors. Call or write your elected officials. Volunteer to help in political campaigns. Circulate petitions. Attend meetings. Protest. Run for office. Support good candidates who are running for office. Register people to vote. Reach out to the young and the apathetic. Raise money. Stay informed. And vote, vote, vote - every chance you get.

Democracy is a breeze during good times. It's when the storms are raging that citizenship is put to the test. And there's a hell of a wind blowing right now.