Republicans are going to have to figure out why they lost on Tuesday, and Democrats are going to have to figure out why they won.
The shape of the next two years – including the even more important 2008 elections – depends on how the two parties interpret what happened.
Let’s start with the Republicans. GOPers woke up to see a Washington Post “analysis” headlined “A Voter Rebuke for Bush, the War and the Right.” The New York Times added that the results put “a proudly unyielding president on notice that the voters want change, especially on the war in Iraq.” Veteran conservative activist Paul Weyrich, speaking to the Washington Times, mostly agreed: “The war in Iraq had to be what went most wrong for Republicans. … The public didn’t like it and blamed the Republican Party for it.” In other words, congressional Republicans were catching the blame for an unpopular war cooked up in the White House.
On the other hand, prominent Republican blogger Rich Galen dismissed the White House as a factor. Galen ripped into congressional Republicans for earmarking and overspending, and added that Capitol Hill leadership “allowed the members to engage in self-dealing on an unprecedented scale. Whether it was trips paid for by lobbyists; hiring family members at high salaries to plan parties; steering consulting business to former staffers; or outright bribery …”
So which is it? Is it President Bush or soon-to-be-ex-Speaker Dennis Hastert who’s to blame? Vice President Dick Cheney had his response: In an interview with ABC News just before the election, he declared the White House would go “full speed ahead” on Iraq, no matter what.
Yet Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced his resignation. Which is to say, the Bush administration is showing unfamiliar flexibility in light of the elections. And it can show more suppleness in its response to forthcoming recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan commission led by ex-Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican, and ex-House International Relations Committee Chairman Lee Hamilton, a Democrat.
Indeed, foreign policy crises underscore the need for constructive bipartisanship – although pure partisanship, too, is telling Republicans that something needs to change in Iraq. Few GOPers wish to face the 2008 elections after another two years of quagmire in Iraq.
For their part, the Democrats must ask themselves: “Did we win because the voters actually like us, or merely because the voters have come to dislike the Republicans?” Democrats benefited from policies aimed at winning back moderate-to-conservative “Reagan Democrats” – defending Social Security, raising the minimum wage, toughening up on trade – but for the most part Nancy Pelosi & Co. confined themselves to meaningless protest-vote buzz phrases, promising “a new direction.” So the Democrats now have a substantially blank slate upon which to write. The senior moderates in the party will presumably be able to restrain their leftward fringe from trying to censure or impeach Bush, but will they hold the line on tax increases? Will they let environmentalists push caps on greenhouse gases, thus accelerating the de-industrialization of America? Will they block conservative judicial nominees and put the American Civil Liberties Union in charge of rewriting our counterterrorism policy? Will they push a “guest worker” bill?
Democrats might note across the country right-of-center social policies were mostly victorious. Gay marriage and affirmative action were voted down, “English Only” was voted up.
Will the Democrats ignore those public opinion indicators, just as the Republicans ignored public opinion over the past few years? As 2006 proved, voters always stand ready to correct the excesses of incumbents. And voters can easily do it again in 2008.
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