For those of you who don't have access to Times Select, this article by Roger Cohen is definitely worth a read:
You could be forgiven for thinking, just a few days before a critical midterm election, that for all the need for thoughtful exchange on everything from Iraq to the tens of millions of Americans without medical insurance, what's left of politics is this: wolves howling in the dark that the world will come to an end if the other side wins.
It was enough that Kerry blew a joke about Bush's intelligence (or its absence), so impugning the brains of the troops in Iraq rather than the president's, for the familiar Republican fusillade to begin. John Boehner, the second-ranking Republican in the House, said of Kerry that "we're going to beat him to death" until he apologizes. That was one of the milder expressions of Republican ire.
Led by Bush in full campaign mode, the Republicans have returned to their winning card in the last two elections: national security. Kerry's lapse (he has a talent for lapses) opened the way. It showed, once again, that Democrats are unpatriotic, wimp-like, anti-military folk who think terrorists need therapy rather than thermonuclear treatment.
Or so the Republicans insisted. Their bombardment has smacked of desperation. They are looking for any last-minute means to reverse what all polls suggest is a Democratic surge, driven by anger with Bush and anxiety over Iraq, that should - Kerry notwithstanding - deliver the House to the Democrats next week and may just wrest the Senate from Republican control, too.
Kerry apologized in the end, but not before he had attacked the Republicans as "straw men" who are "afraid to debate real men" and are "assorted right-wing nut jobs." It's worth looking up on YouTube the hilarious video send-up, produced by JibJab, of the 2004 presidential election to be reminded of how little has changed in two years.
To the tune of Woody Guthrie's classic "This Land Is Your Land" Bush-the-cowboy and Kerry-the-egghead-liberal rip into each other with alternating lines:
You're a liberal sissy,
You're a right-wing nut job,
You're a pinko Commie
You're dumb as a door knob,
You've got that Botox,
But I still won three Purple Hearts
This land will surely vote for me!
There you have it, the legacy of more than a decade of polarization in American politics, driven by a host of factors: the Republican impeach-Clinton campaign that enraged Democrats; the unabated Democratic fury over the knife-edge 2000 election and the way Bush won it; Bush's cynical use of the war on terror and homeland security as electoral battering rams rather than unifying issues; the rise of Fox News and a hate-is-best culture that gets extremists the TV time; the gerrymandering of electoral districts that encourages parties appealing to their own to dig in rather than reach out; the rise of "vote your values" politics that has exacerbated moral divisions between red-state and blue-state Americans.
In short, the Republicans have moved right, the Democrats have moved left and, whatever the outcome of the election, the fact will remain that bipartisanship and compromise have become ever rarer in American politics but remain the only way to get movement on big issues like Iraq, health care and immigration.
Along with political debate, the great loser has been liberalism, not in the cheap sense that has turned the word into the preferred insult of contemporary American politics, but in its historical sense, the one articulated from John Locke to Isaiah Berlin: the embrace of personal liberty, pluralism and the right of dissent within the rule of law as pillars of a healthy society.
Bush recoils from liberalism in his own manipulative definition of the word - to denote tax-and-spend sissies - but perhaps the greatest damage he has done to America has been his trampling on the true liberal tradition of civilized debate through his repeated suggestion that perhaps half of Americans are not true Americans because they happen to have different political convictions.
Even if the Republicans cling to Congress - and that's just possible in that 20 or 30 seats appear so close that a 1 or 2 percent swing in the final days could change the outcome - their leader, Bush, will have to become less of a divider and a more of a unifier in his last two years if he wants to get things done.
But on the evidence of the past couple of weeks, that's unlikely. This is a president who never found a divisive one-liner he was not ready to deploy, and damn the long-term cost to the country, if he could use it to shore up his ranks.
Still, there are a few hopeful signs as this ugly campaign draws to a close. One is the political strength of two likely presidential contenders in 2008 - John McCain on the Republican side and Barack Obama on the Democratic - who have made the quest for middle ground and the transcending of division central themes.
Another is the broad evidence of disgust with Congress and politics in general, revealed in countless polls and suggested by the way Americans are turning more and more to comedy shows like "The Colbert Report" for a form of news that sends up the snide attacks and character assassination that pass for political debate.
"At some point, a sizable group of Americans rebel," said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst. "McCain and Obama may be a signal that we will transcend this destructive stuff. There are huge problems in our country and the world, and the wheels will come off if we don't put down the knives."
Guthrie did not write that this land "was made for you or me." He wrote that it was "made for you and me." After next Tuesday, and however the chips fall, that will be worth recalling in Washington, not least in the White House.