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Soul-searching starts year

Bracketed by the earliest hints of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq and the recent tsunami disaster that killed more than 100,000 people in Asia and east Africa, 2004 is a year most of us are happy to put behind us.

Whether the subject was athletes punching fans at an NBA game or the year's increasingly nasty and divisive political campaigns, events were often bitter, breathtaking and tough to digest. Was it a sign of votes to come that so many more people saw Mel Gibson's Bible story Passion of the Christ than Michael Moore's liberal screed Fahrenheit 9/11? Was George W. Bush's electoral victory really a conservative mandate or just a sign that the Democrats need better candidates?

And does the steady stream of missteps and tragedies in Iraq herald the start of a Vietnam-level quagmire, or the necessary growing pain that comes from bringing democracy to a country ruled by a brutal dictator for a quarter century?

Election Day proved the year's defining moment _ a time when voters had the chance to punish President Bush for hyping Iraq's non-existent weapons of mass destruction and pulling the nation into a war underequipped and undermanned with no clear exit plan. Instead, Bush and the GOP rode doubts about Democrat John Kerry into another White House term, consolidating their control of the government while preparing to take on partial privatization of Social Security and revamping of the federal income tax system.

For those who had hoped the president's mistakes might cost him the job, November's elections proved a jolt, unsettling proof that a wide swath of America viewed public policy so differently they could be living in separate countries. For Bush supporters, it was powerful affirmation of the silent majority conservatives have claimed for years.

The big headlines of 2004 were relentlessly discouraging: prisoner abuses at detention centers in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay; beheadings of western hostages in Iraq; fights over gay marriage; conservative icon Ronald Reagan's death; Osama bin Laden pushing the Western world's buttons while remaining at large; four hurricanes in Florida that killed 117 people and brought $22-billion in damage; rising U.S. budget deficits and falling value for the U.S. dollar.

There also were bright spots, however. New hope for Israeli/Palestinian peace talks have risen from the shadow of Yasser Arafat's November death. In Florida, officials moved quickly to help those in areas ravaged by hurricanes and saw post-2000 voting reforms keep electoral shenanigans to a minimum.

Still, it seems likely 2005 will only bring bigger questions. Can Bush privatize part of Social Security without destroying it? If the United States is spending billions in Iraq and trillions privatizing Social Security, how do we plug our massive federal deficit? Can we curb the threat of nuclear weapon development in Iran and North Korea with Iraq _ which seems poised to elect an Iran-friendly, Shiite-dominated government Jan. 20 _ a continuing distraction? And do the Democrats in Congress have what it takes to function as a real opposition party?

We hope the president will not squander his political capital in 2005 the way he wasted the nation's post-9/11 unity four years earlier. If this next year offers half the challenges of 2004, we will need more than ever the kind of realistic, sensible leadership that can unite a country still seeking better times ahead.