Overhearing The Agenda

Eavesdropping is an underrated form of information gathering. Listening to the conversation going on in the next booth at the diner--for a writer, that's invaluable. It's also a powerful child-rearing tool. Since for some reason parents become invisible while driving, you learn more about preadolescents as they talk in the back seat of a car than you ever will in conversation.

And all corporations should have professional eavesdroppers to hang around supermarkets, department stores, auto showrooms and other places where goods are considered, and rejected. Market research, focus groups, staff meetings--none is a substitute for hearing one person tell another, "That new fat-free yogurt tastes like Elmer's glue."

But no professional needs to hire eavesdroppers as much as elected officials do, particularly those who live and work in Washington, a snow globe of a city in which real public opinion rarely penetrates the plastic shell. Outside the D.C. bubble are fast-food joints, school parking lots, health clubs, corner taverns and millions and millions of living rooms in which citizens, who every two years are known affectionately as voters, gather to talk about what they are thinking. If the guys in the GOP, particularly the guys in the White House, had had eavesdroppers out there in the last six months, they would have known that they were going down the tubes.

The midterm elections of 2006 will be remembered as the moment when Democrats took back control of Congress, and Mr. Speaker became a Ms. But if you do enough eavesdropping across the country, you can also conclude that it was a wholesale reaction against overreaching. Call it realignment, or moderation. Just don't call it liberal or conservative, Democratic or Republican. Those labels don't really apply. That's how it was possible for voters to both reject both an abortion ban in South Dakota and affirmative action in Michigan. Each side of the ideological fence could spin one of those as a victory. But both results are at least partly fear of government gone too far. And while poll questions and advocacy groups talk about morals and ethics on social issues, closer to the ground the underlying questions may be more practical: Does this make sense? Will it do what it says?

If the body politic always winds up eventually tacking toward the center, it's difficult to imagine how progressive measures ever take hold. The reason is simple and cyclical: the center slowly shifts. It is now a moderate position to believe in the full participation of women; 30 years ago it was a radical position, and 50 years ago it was barely a position at all. The reason anti-gay-marriage amendments in seven states were approved may have less to do with passionate homophobia than with a profound sense of cultural whiplash: too much, too soon. Which will someday, I'm certain, seem quaint to our children. What a difference a couple of decades can make in terms of what's considered fair and normative!

Even the opposition to the war in Iraq, seen as the moving force behind many of the election results, reflected that rejection of overreaching. As the invasion dragged on, and more and more soldiers and civilians died with what appeared to be little result--and as report after report showed how the administration had rushed in for murky reasons and with murkier plans--voters developed the sense that the conflict was too costly, too long-lived, too directionless. The war did not seem proportionate to the result, or, as a mother might muse in the aisle at Costco, "Is it worth what I'm paying for it? And do we really need it?"

The Democrats would do well to keep all this in mind as they take over the legislative branch in January. "The downside," muttered one high-ranking political operative the morning after, "is that now we need to actually do something." And that's true. It's just important to know what people really want done, and what they prefer to handle themselves. Ultimately the Republicans lost the confidence of even some of their own because the stranglehold of the radical religious right changed them from the party of Lincoln to the party of Leviticus. What they forgot is that America is a pragmatic nation, not a radical one. Americans are open to the new, even the revolutionary, if the situation or the need requires it. But the election results suggest that they don't want elected officials trying to manage more of their lives than is necessary. They want a hand, not a fist.

Franklin Roosevelt, a man who was an ace with both people and politics, once said, "A radical is a man with both feet firmly planted in the air. A conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs, who, however, has never learned to walk forward." And, he concluded, a liberal was a person who used his legs and his hands in the service of his head. He might also have added that an incumbent is someone who uses his ears. FDR had a class-A eavesdropper out regularly taking the temperature of America; her name was Eleanor. As always, the Democrats should follow his lead. Hers, too. Listen up.