Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Assessing the 2006 congressional elections


David Reinhard

What a great night ... for Democrats. There's no other way around it. The party of Nancy Pelosi didn't capture the House with just a few votes to spare, and she isn't dependent on an influx of conservative Democrats. Her party won convincingly. It hasn't been this sweet for Democrats since Bill Clinton signed his last pardon.

Yes, Republicans can note that this year's election didn't match the losses of Republicans in 1974 (Democrats added 49 seats in the House) or Democrats in 1994 (Republicans added 54 House seats). Yes, there were many close races that tipped the wrong way and resulted in a what President Bush called a "thumpin'." Yes, Republicans can note that the new House majority wouldn't be quite so big if Republicans didn't have to run one incumbent (Pennsylvania's Don Sherwood) who copped to having a mistress but denied choking her, while also coming up with replacements in GOP districts for Mark Foley, Tom DeLay and Bob Ney. Yes, Republicans can kvetch that the big media went from hostile to rabidly partisan this election.

Whatever helps Republicans make it through the long night, I guess. But, please, there's no sugar-coating this coast-to-coast shellacking.

Maybe it was no 1974 or 1994, but it was about as big as it could be in the absence of more open seats through retirement and in an age of computer-assisted gerrymandering. And the problems in the bad-boy districts were part of a larger corruption theme that took hold. And with good reason. As for big media bias, Republicans need to just deal with it. It's not like it didn't exist before and Republicans didn't overcome it. It's just more blatant now, which is in some ways a good thing.

"From sea to shining sea, the American people voted for change," said Pelosi on her way to becoming the nation's first female House speaker.

Yes, they did. They didn't like the Republican House. They didn't like the Iraq war. They didn't like Bush, and they wanted a change. After a long campaign, however, it's unclear what change Democrats will offer, let alone produce, beyond the first female House speaker. Oh, we know what Pelosi and crew are against—the GOP House, the Iraq war and Bush—and that proved enough this time. Their platform is little more than an increase in the minimum wage and opposition to any and all things Bush, neatly packaged in up to six different slogans.

It was all vague enough that Democrats could field some moderate to conservative candidates who opposed abortion and tax hikes. This is a good thing for the Democratic Party and the nation—and the new lawmakers' future prospects—but only if these new Democrats don't become cannon fodder when Pelosi gets down to actually governing. We'll see.

Which brings us to the more, dare we say, positive aspects of the GOP's morning after. One way or another, Democrats will have to produce. They'll now be accountable. Whining won't make a record in two years. In 2008, there will be a lot of competitive congressional races in what will inevitably be a different political environment. This Democratic victory could drain a lot of the anti-Bush poison that has animated much of our politics.

Last week's results will also bring new GOP leadership and a sober examination of what went wrong—over the past two years, over the past six years, over the past 12. It's high time for both. Did Republicans grow fat and happy and careerist? Was there a failure of leadership or an abandonment of principles? Was Tuesday's drubbing a reaction to Iraq and corruption and careerism or something larger? Why do so many conservatives think Republicans deserved to lose?

True, winning's always better than losing. But anyone tempted to wallow or assume the fetal position might recall their history. Democrat Harry Truman's 1948 win followed the GOP's takeover of Congress in 1946. The Republicans' 1994 triumph followed George H.W. Bush's 1992 loss. And Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election victory followed the Republicans' 1994 triumph. It's a kind of political Ecclesiastes.

Which is not a bad place for some of us to turn on a brooding day like this: "The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course ... "

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