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Noisy Debates Make Good Politics
Published on Sunday, January 11, 2004 by the Minneapolis Star Tribune
Noisy Debates Make Good Politics
by Susan Lenfestey

One of the most unsettling aspects of the Bush administration is the quashing of dissent, whether it's barricades to keep anti-Bush protesters out of sight or slurs on the patriotism of those who disagree. The long arm of Karl Rove seems to have a stranglehold on the Republican Congress as well.

Even the handful of moderate Republicans like John McCain and Olympia Snowe are strangely quiet these days. They don't have to run against President Bush, but they ought to question at least a few of his policies, starting with his alarming lack of regard for the federal budget.

A cornerstone of the GOP is a conservative economic policy. What's conservative about a record deficit of $374 billion, which the Congressional Budget Office projects will soar to $450 billion next year? Yet only a few congresspeople describe themselves as uncomfortable with the deficit, and no Republican leader has raised the ruckus it deserves.

The recently passed Medicare bill, the biggest expansion of a government program since LBJ's war on poverty, contains something to make everyone squirm. For the Democrats, big profits for pharmaceutical companies and minimal relief for the little guy; for the Republicans, a government program on steroids. Yet Republicans like Tom DeLay only gloated about stealing a liberal issue, and a loser of a bill lumbered through.

Self-regulation for industry has lost its luster in the face of increased toxic emissions from power plants, power outages last summer and a beef industry covering its rump with a hide of excuses. Texas and other cattle-producing states, traditionally in that red Republican column, stand to lose the most as Americans lose their appetite for offal-fed burgers. But no elected Republican leader from any of these states has stood up to counter Bush's congenital allegiance to business interests over public well-being.

Last week, Sen. Norm Coleman, who calls himself bipartisan despite a near-perfect 98 percent record of support for Bush, said, "I didn't come to the Senate to play a big part in a debating society." He should have. Congressional debate is the clumsy but eloquent process that can lead to good bipartisan legislation. It's what we're encouraging in Iraq as we disparage and suppress it back home.

The Democratic presidential contenders, on the other hand, debate at volume. With the Iowa caucuses bobbing on the waves like land in front of a shipwrecked sailor, the candidates are stroking more frantically for shore. No one can deny that at times it looks like a pack of alligators chasing after a poodle, or in this case, a bulldog.

How could this possibly lead to the best nominee and the defeat of George Bush in November?

In the last few days we've heard serious issues like free trade and heath care discussed with passion and intelligence. There's a panoply of complicated issues being turned, twisted and looked at from nine different perspectives, and not all of them white and male. The two recent debates did a good job of carving out each candidate's positions. If you get beyond the impulse to avert your eyes, there's some good public discourse here.

An open process of verbal pummeling and the freewheeling exchange of ideas may not be the best way to pick a candidate, and, sadly for our nation, it may not be the way to win an election. But it's the only legitimate way to practice democracy.

In light of all these tongue-tied Republicans, the fractious Democrats are looking better all the time.

Susan Lenfestey ( is a Minneapolis writer.

© Copyright 2003 Star Tribune


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