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Democrats: The Big Surprise

Perhaps, just perhaps, the 2006 mid-term elections will give pause to the “long-term trend” school—industry, actually—of American politics. For years, pundits have been telling us, and it became the received wisdom, that the Republicans have been and will continue to be dominant in American politics. We have been through this many times: Richard Nixon, with the advice of the young political analyst Kevin Phillips, was building a “New American Majority.” That lasted eight years at the most. Then, during the Reagan years, we had the “Republican lock” on the Electoral College—the theory that Republican domination of Southern and noncoastal Western states gave them a permanent edge in the Electoral College vote. (Inconveniently, Democratic presidents interrupted these “trends.”)

More recently, political commentators have bombarded us with the theory that George W. Bush’s guru (or “architect”) Karl Rove had designed a successful strategy to achieve lasting Republican dominance. This strategy was more thorough, if not more cold-blooded, than earlier ones—building a new base of right-wing conservatives and Christian evangelicals combined with the money-raising power of K Street lobbyists, and the companion efforts to assure Republican rule by such enforcers as Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform.

In fact, K Street will not change a great deal even though the Democrats are in charge on Capitol Hill and Tom DeLay is gone. Democrats have their own K Street connections, and the lobbying firms, anticipating a Democratic win in November, had already begun recruiting more Democrats, and raising more money for the Democratic Party. The Republican lobbyists have no lack of business: they will now devote their efforts to trying to block new Democratic legislation that their clients oppose, such as lower drug prices in the prescription drug program, or elimination of tax breaks. The question is whether, like the Republicans, the Democrats will allow their own lobbyist allies to have the run of Capitol Hill, even letting them write bills there.

Another question is how strong Bush’s base will continue to be, against other forces in the electorate. After the 2000 election Bush and Rove concluded that the way to preserve power was to build a conservative base that would turn out in force the next time. They courted the Christian right by opposing stem-cell research using human embryos; calling for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage; signing a law against “partial birth abortion”; and putting conservative, apparently anti-abortion judges on the Supreme Court and the lower courts as well. Bush also set up in 2001 the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, from which both its first head as well as a deputy head later resigned, saying that it was being exploited for political purposes.^1 From Ronald Reagan on, Republicans have appealed for support from Christian right organizations, but now the Christian right has become not only an integral part of the Republican Party but also the party’s main constituency. In an interview, the astute Republican lobbyist and activist Vin Weber said of the Christian conservatives, “They really are to the Republican party what labor or African-Americans are to the Democrats—similar in numbers and impact.” Weber told me, “The evangelical vote is simply larger than that of other Republican constituencies.”

The Rove “genius,” his daunting get-out-the-vote machinery mobilizing Republican activists on the ground, as well as his ability to frame issues from gay marriage to fighting terrorism in a way that puts Democrats on the defensive, added to the mystique of Republican invincibility. But Rove’s real innovation was to develop a far more sophisticated “targeting” operation—figuring out, for example, where the Christian right and evangelical voters are to be found, and making sure they get to the polls.

Rove’s vaunted targeting operation, first notable in 2002, wasn’t enough this time. Mechanics alone can’t win elections. The embrace of Christian conservatives has helped push the Republican Party far to the right, leaving more centrist and independent voters up for grabs. In the 2006 elections, 59 percent of independents voted for Democrats—up from 49 percent in 2004. Immigration was supposed to be a “hot-button” issue for Republicans this year, but at best it was a dud. Even the loudmouth J.D. Hayworth, an Arizona congressman who exploited the opposition to immigration that was supposedly rampant, lost his seat. Democrats made strong gains among Hispanics. Bush’s position against federal funding for stem-cell research using human embryos actually helped some Democratic candidates, such as Claire McCaskill, who won a narrow victory over the Republican incumbent in the Missouri Senate race.

The long-term trend theories fail to foresee the ways events can affect an election: a disastrous war, a botched response to a devastating hurricane, an economy that isn’t working for the middle class. They also don’t anticipate an eruption of scandals—this time the ethics violations of Republicans who had dealings with Jack Abramoff, and, toward the end of the campaign, the discovery that Florida Republican congressman Mark Foley had been sending highly suggestive messages to Capitol Hill pages, which the Republican House leadership apparently had been covering up.

In fact, the last two presidential elections had already shown that the electorate is closely divided, a conclusion reinforced by the 2006 midterm elections. There is also the plain fact that some candidates are better politicians than others, and that some may stumble. In Virginia, for example, starting well before the Senate race began, it was the wisdom among the Washington consultants, journalists, and politicians who all talk to one another that George Allen, an amiable man not known for his intellect, was a shoo-in for reelection and a likely and even potent candidate for president in 2008. But Allen’s goofs—starting with his “macaca” moment, which put him under closer scrutiny—caused his own defeat, albeit narrowly. (He even lost the southern Virginia district, known as “redneck” territory, where he had been so offensive to S.R. Sidarth, a young American of Indian descent.)

For the 2006 midterm elections, Rove and Bush reached back for the same playbook they used in the 2002 midterm elections. The basic strategy both times was to paint the opposition party as weak on protecting the country. Rove signaled its return with a speech to the Republican National Committee in January 2006 that was eerily similar to the one he had given to the same group four years earlier: both times, his message was that the Republicans should raise questions about the patriotism of the Democrats, their ability to protect America and to understand the threats the country faces. (“We now hear a loud chorus of Democrats who want us to cut and run,” Rove said this year.)

Then Bush exploited the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks by shamelessly turning the solemn national event into a defense of his policy in Iraq, and for several days thereafter he campaigned on the “war on terror” and, among other things, misrepresented the efforts of many Democrats to make his illegal NSA wiretapping program adhere to the law. He said that the Democrats were “opposed to listening in on terrorists’ conversations,” and that in their (and, as it happened, several Republicans’) opposition to his policy of detaining suspected terrorists indefinitely and permitting interrogation techniques amounting to torture, “they oppose letting the CIA detain and question the terrorists.” Bush’s standing in the polls began to rise. In the first part of September, it appeared that his strategy was working.

But then something happened. By late September, most of the public had come to realize that the war in Iraq was an entirely separate matter from the “war on terror.” In the past, Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and other administration figures had, with considerable success, tried to conjoin the two issues. Iraq, Bush said repeatedly, was the “central front in the war on terror.” But the highly respected pollsters Peter Hart and Bill McInturff, in their surveys for NBC and The Wall Street Journal, found that there was a dramatic shift in the public’s thinking in September. From September 8 through 11, the polling team asked registered voters the question “Do you think the war in Iraq is helping the United States in its ability to win the war on terrorism?” The result was 33 percent thought it was helping; 32 percent thought it was hurting; and 32 percent thought it wasn’t making a difference. (These results have a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.)

When asked the same question at the end of the month, however, 32 percent said it was helping; 46 percent said it was hurting, and the rest said it wasn’t making any difference. Also at the end of September, the pollsters asked whether America’s safety from terrorism depended on success in the war in Iraq; 37 percent said that it did, and 57 percent said that it didn’t. Hart attributes this shift of attitude to the fact that during September a large part of the public figured out that it had been sold a bill of goods: that the increasingly costly and unsuccessful war in Iraq wasn’t part of the war on terrorism, as Bush and Cheney had been asserting that it was.

Bush’s, Cheney’s, and Donald Rumsfeld’s claims of progress in Iraq sharply contrasted with the rising American casualties and the increasing carnage that people were seeing daily on their television screens. Though Bush, Cheney, and Rove tried the same sales pitch that they had been using for four years, the public stopped buying. They had tried to “nationalize” the congressional elections—that is, base them on national rather than local issues—and that strategy came back to bite them.

So strong was the rebellion against Bush and the House Republican leadership that several moderate Republicans—including Jim Leach of Iowa and Charles Bass of New Hampshire—were swept away. It wasn’t that the voters rejected these men and their records as such, but that they came to understand that a vote for a Republican was a vote to retain Republican control of the House or the Senate. A similar fate befell the independent-minded Rhode Island Republican Lincoln Chafee, who had opposed Bush on the Iraq war. David Price, a Democratic congressman from North Carolina and one of the more thoughtful members of the House, told me, “The election was much more a referendum on Bush and Iraq and the Republican stewardship of the House than a response to what we said. It wasn’t that we had such an inspiring program.”

In a speech he gave to a dinner in New York on November 15, Bill Clinton said that the midterm elections were in large part a rejection of unthinking ideology—the Iraq war, extremism on social issues, rancid rhetoric about illegal immigrants. Clinton said that the voters had “elected us to think”—to consider the facts, even inconvenient ones—before acting. He also argued that the Democrats had been given “not a mandate but an opportunity.”

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