Hope is in the air.

As bleak as things are – bleaker I think than many realize (‘The ship of state is on a disastrous course, and will founder on the reefs of economic disaster if nothing is done to correct it,’ writes the Guardian, paraphrasing the Comptroller General of the United States) – the tide may be turning.

This is still America – America – and as much tragic damage as has been done these last six years to our standing abroad, and by the erosion of our finances at home, we are still the nation that self-corrects better than any other, and that, for all its missteps, lurches generation after generation toward an ever more perfect union.

The missteps of late have been staggering. But . . . but . . .

The most obvious ‘but’ is the hope that Congress will change hands and resume its heretofore suspended oversight function. (‘Congress,’ writes Garrison Keillor, ‘which once spent an entire year investigating a married man’s attempt to cover up an illicit act of oral sex, has shown no curiosity whatsoever about a war that the administration elected to wage that has killed and maimed hundreds of thousands and led our own people to commit war crimes and squandered hundreds of billions of dollars and degenerated into civil war.’)

Nancy Pelosi, if we take back the House, will, I think, fight for a hike in the minimum wage – the first cost-of-living raise in nine years – and fight to allow Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices, fight to restore trimmed college aid, fight for better treatment of our troops and veterans, and fight for verifiable elections.

(In America, we have to rely on the word of Diebold that our elections are tamperproof? With no way to recount the ballots? Have you seen Man of the Year? It’s much better – and more important – than you might have guessed from the ads.)

She will also fight, I think, to restore some measure of collegiality to the House.

Nor need a Democratic Congress, if we get one, alarm friends who disagree with us:

* GOD. Abortions went down under Clinton/Gore, have gone up under Bush/Cheney. Democrats and Republicans don’t come at it from exactly the same place, but we all wish there were fewer abortions . . . so that’s some common ground to build on. One example of tremendous progress we could make toward this end would be to allow over-the-counter sale of Plan B, ‘the morning after pill,’ which prevents pregnancy and thus the need for abortion. It’s not the total abstinence that the other side would prefer; but it’s a heck of a lot better than abortion.

* GUNS. Jon Tester, who we hope will be the next senator from Montana, opposes most gun control – and so, for that matter, did DNC Chair Howard Dean, who had a consistent A-rating from the NRA throughout his decade-plus as Vermont Governor. Whereas Chuck Schumer, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee favors gun control. But so what? Senator Schumer represents New York. The gun situation in (say) the housing projects of Bedford Stuyvesant is different from (say) the situation in Vermont or Montana. One size need not fit all.

* GAYS. Experience thus far suggests that allowing GLBT Americans and their children equal rights and first-class citizenship does not wind up diminishing the rights – or breaking up the marriages – of everybody else. It’s important to respect the discomfort many people still feel with these topics . . . and to allow Kansas and Mississippi more time to chew this over than California and Massachusetts. But, increasingly, people see Rosie on ‘The View‘ or Ellen on ‘Ellen‘ or Barney Frank on Bill Maher, and simply welcome them as part of the American family.

I got this email from a reader tonight, and it left me wondering what proportion of America, in 2006, would still find it repugnant: ‘In 1962 after having just arrived in Los Angeles at 20, I met a young fellow, 21, who knocked my socks off. We stayed up all night in my tiny furnished apartment in Hollywood and talked until we both fell asleep. When I woke up, he was gone and I was disappointed. He showed up at my door two hours later with his bags packed and asked if he could move in. We’ve just celebrated the 44th anniversary of that night and his very presence still brightens any dark corners in my world. We’ve never been apart one night since then. For two guys with minimum education, we’ve managed to build a really good life together, and at 65 and 66 we are co-parenting two children, a boy aged 7 and a girl 2 1/2. They live three days a week with us and four days a week with their two moms. We have created a great family and when another boy asked our son how he had two moms and two dads, his reply was ‘I guess I’m just lucky.” No question, some will find that repugnant or threatening. But I think by now a large proportion of the citizenry would actually find themselves rooting for these characters. Love and happiness are precious wherever they are found. Would Jesus really disagree?)

* TAXES. Taxes may go up on the wealthiest of us, as they did when Clinton took office. But boy were those ever good years for the wealthy – and for everyone else. We were all in it together.

The Republicans fear the economy will collapse if we push the long-term capital gains rate back up to 20% (even though it was 28% under Reagan and 36% under Eisenhower) or if we fail to eliminate the estate tax on billionheirs. But it’s more likely that, over time, the economy will collapse if we don’t act responsibly. And the social contract will tear if the yachts just keep getting bigger while the average family struggles to make ends meet, with little hope of attaining financial security for retirement.

* TERROR. Sixteen national intelligence agencies agree we have made things worse. We have done just what Bin Laden dreamed we would, greatly weakening ourselves in the process – and leaving him alive to make videotapes. Democrats don’t want to cut and run. As suggested yesterday, we want to stop and think. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are not doing a ‘fantastic job,’ as President Bush believes. (Take 80 seconds to watch this video.)

Well, this was supposed to be a column about hope. But fear crowds out hope, so maybe it’s not entirely inappropriate to get that off the table first. Democrats will not take away your guns or go nuts on taxes – we don’t like paying them, either. Democrats will not force your daughters to have abortions or to marry lesbians. Democrats will not take the heat off terrorists.

And Democrats – I hope – will be respectful of your views and concerns, because we all need to do a better job of that.

So. All that said:

I find it hopeful that the House, and perhaps even the Senate, may be changing hands. And that the rest of the world may look at tonight’s results and surmise that we are beginning to get back on track – very rightly concerned with our security, but uncomfortable being a nation of torturers with a global chain of secret prisons.

I find it hopeful that the two spectacularly talented, decent frontrunners for the Democratic nomination in 2008 are . . . a woman and a black guy. Who says we don’t lurch, generation after generation, toward an ever more perfect union? We really do.

I find it hopeful that Rush Limbaugh has lost more than half his audience – at 13 million weekly, I’m told (I haven’t checked this), down from 30 million. America works best when citizens think for themselves. Dittoheads scare me.

I find it hopeful that we might yet embrace the promise of embryonic stem cell research that could save your parents or children (or, heck – you) from the misery Michael J. Fox and his family are going through or that Ronald and Nancy Reagan, or Christopher Reeve, endured.

I find it hopeful that DuPont (up 20% since it was suggested here last fall) managed to raise output nearly 30% in the last decade or so while cutting its energy consumption 7% and its greenhouse gas emissions 72% – and saving $2 billion for its shareholders.

I find it hopeful that everyone from Laura Bush and Rupert Murdoch to Barbra Streisand, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Warren Buffett came to the Clinton Global Initiative in New York a few weeks ago and, between them all, pledged more than $7 billion for innovative projects to help fix the world. Everything from planting trees in Africa to Wal-Mart’s commitment to take an estimated 213,000 trucks off the road by 2013 by leaning on its 60,000 suppliers to ship their goods with less wasteful, bulky packaging. You want to be inspired? Watch the video.

Hope is in the air.

It is in the wisdom and example and grace of Muhammad Yunus, who founded the Grameen Bank decades ago and launched the ‘microlending’ model that has helped lift millions out of poverty. He was at the Clinton Global Initiative, and, just a week or two later, received the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. ‘Every single individual on earth has both the potential and the right to live a decent life,’ wrote the Nobel Committee in announcing the award. ‘Across cultures and civilizations, Yunus and Grameen Bank have shown that even the poorest of the poor can work to bring about their own development.’

It is in the work of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter’s Carter Center (‘waging peace, fighting disease, building hope’), which has – among so many things – led the campaign to eradicate Guinea worm, cutting the number of cases by 99.5%, from 3.5 million in 1986 to 10,000 in 2005.

It is in Bono’s global Product Red campaign.

It’s in the blossoming of the Chinese and Indian economies that promise to move hundreds of millions out of poverty (and into line to buy American goods and services).

It is in the increasing willingness of some evangelical leaders to suggest – as many of their followers have doubtless already concluded – that Jesus might not have favored preemptive war, waterboarding, and massive tax cuts for the rich.

It’s in the terrific young candidates we have running for the House and Senate today like Tammy Duckworth in Illinois and Scott Kleeb in Nebraska and Amy Klobuchar in Minnesota and Kirsten Gillibrand in New York – and so many others.

It’s in two guys, 65 and 66, who met 44 years ago in Los Angeles and haven’t spent a night apart since; who are passing on their example of love and commitment to their two children, one of whom we already know feels he has lucked out.

It’s in Kerry Kennedy’s ‘Speak Truth to Power‘ that was performed last month in New York, celebrating the courage of astonishing people around the world who, at great peril to themselves, insist on justice . . . and recalling that most hopeful and famous of speeches, delivered by her father Bobby Kennedy, Jr., in Apartheid South Africa in 1966, in which he said: ‘Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope. And, crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.’

So there you have it.

I don’t know what will happen today, but I’m hopeful.

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