Thursday, August 12, 2004
E.J. Dionne makes no bones about where he stands politically.
"I have to admit I'm a French-Canadian, Massachusetts liberal," the nationally syndicated political columnist said. "That's really tough these days."
The crowd at Centennial Hall in Steamboat Springs didn't seem to mind Thursday, when Dionne spoke about the polarization of the American electorate to an audience of more than 250 people. Dionne, who has spent the past 14 years writing for The Washington Post, was the featured speaker for the summer's third Seminars at Steamboat discussion.
Mixing humor and anecdotes into his discussion, Dionne gave the standing-room-only audience his views on the increased polarization of politics and the need to unify the country.
Unification may be difficult as long as the conservative agenda continues to drift further to the right, Dionne said. That push to the right has had the effect of moving moderates right, too.
And no group has suffered more as a result of the conservative push than Democrats and others on the left end of the political spectrum, many of whom find themselves in a perpetual identity crisis, Dionne said.
"Democrats suffer in two ways from their (ideological) argument over moving further to the left or more to the center," Dionne said. For one, they always appear to be opportunistic when it comes to taking a particular side of an issue.
"By contrast, the Bush administration and the Republican Party seem to know what they stand for, or at least pretend to," he said.
Stuck in the middle are frustrated moderates, many of whom resent the increasingly conservative agenda of the Bush administration, in particular, and the polarization of politics, in general.
Dionne offered several reasons for the polarization, including redistricting efforts that have had the effect of establishing homogenous voting blocs.
"You have real politics in a very few number of districts in the country," Dionne said.
The Florida controversy during the 2000 presidential election also contributed to political polarization, Dionne said.
President Bush had several opportunities to soften the widening gap between political divisions. Perhaps his biggest opportunity came in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Republican and Democratic lawmakers who never before got along or even spoke to one another were successful in passing bipartisan legislation.
That bipartisan spirit quickly disappeared when Republicans used the 2002 homeland security bill as a political tool, Dionne said.
Polarization has left a smaller number of undecided voters than is typical for a presidential election, though Dionne thinks there remains a significant number of moderates and independents uncomfortable with the direction of the country under Bush.
If those voters turn to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the result could be an opportunity to end the widening rift between political factions.
But to do so, Kerry must reach out to moderate Republicans in Congress -- people such as Sen. John McCain, Dionne said.
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