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 (David Kuo, the former deputy, has written that it was used in 2004 to target evangelical voters in twenty races.2 ) 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.”
Many Republicans seem not to have fully realized what happened to them. The conservative columnist David Brooks lamented on The NewsHour on November 8 that the Republican leaders were in denial: that they were telling each other that things were going well until “the Foley scandal” or “the Abramoff scandal.” Some Republicans argue that they lost because they hadn’t been conservative enough. But that wasn’t what Pennsylvanians said when they rejected the highly conservative Rick Santorum. A large number of Republicans also blame Bush, and are angry that, among other things, he waited until after the election to fire Donald Rumsfeld.
Rove, meanwhile, has tried to spin his way out of the fact that the Republicans lost, in particular the House. His view—sent out through Fox News and friendly columnists—is that, you see, the Republicans didn’t really lose the election because Rahm Emanuel, who ran the Democratic House campaign, deliberately recruited some candidates who were social conservatives, such as Heath Shuler from North Carolina, a former NFL football star and evangelical Christian who opposes abortion, and who went on to defeat an eight-term incumbent; or military heroes such as Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania, a highly decorated retired vice-admiral, who defeated a ten-term incumbent by a fourteen-point margin. But, as the Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne wrote, every new Democrat elected was well to the left of the Republican whom he or she defeated. And several Democrats ran as conservatives on social issues such as abortion but as economic populists when it came to eliminating some of the tax cuts for the rich, or opposing trade agreements.
More recently Rove has been telling White House allies that the new strategy is to “reach out” to members on both sides of the aisle. But this might of necessity be limited to conservative Democrats: other Bush goals are to go back to “Republican basics”—stop the Democrats from undoing some of Bush’s tax cuts, be tough on spending (Bush hasn’t yet vetoed any appropriations bills), and resist changes to his “anti-terrorist” programs. And, puzzlingly, Rove has been saying that Bush will again press for Social Security reform—an effort that quickly collapsed in 2005. Bush in fact may well push for broad reform of entitlement programs.
Limited as the vote for a Democratic revolution may have been in November—and however limited or extensive the legislative results will be—the turnover to the Democrats in both chambers will have some profound effects. There are expected to be extensive investigations as well as oversight of how programs are being carried out (there have been none under the Republicans). Henry Waxman, the new chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, will begin with hearings on “waste, fraud and abuse of the taxpayers’ money,” an approach that will allow him to justify investigation of many issues as being in the broad public interest. The Democrats will also try to pass legislation modifying the prescription drug program to bring drug prices down and to raise the minimum wage; they will also show more interest in passing, and enforcing, strong ethics rules. But there is also a real opportunity for the Democrats to challenge Bush’s dangerous power grab of the last six years. The elevation of Patrick Leahy, a strong civil libertarian, to be chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, replacing Arlen Specter, has large implications for Bush’s claims to virtually unlimited executive power that have until now been supported almost automatically by the Republican Congress. After talking tough about making the NSA wiretapping conform to the law, Specter negotiated with Cheney, who had been working against any restrictions on the program, and in effect sold out, agreeing to new rules that were so vague that the resulting bill didn’t amount to any substantial limitations on the President’s powers.
Dianne Feinstein, another Judiciary Committee member, called Specter’s compromise “worse than no bill at all.” Leahy has vowed not to let it pass the Senate. In the next Congress, he will work with the new chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Jay Rockefeller, who replaces Pat Roberts. Unlike Roberts, who was complaisant toward the administration and the CIA, Rockefeller will ask a lot of questions about the NSA wiretapping program and he and Leahy will likely write new legislation restricting the administration’s power to conduct it. (Rockefeller had complained in a letter to Cheney about the administration’s withholding information about it from the committee.)
Leahy’s new position could also affect the new Military Commissions Act, which he has called “flagrantly unconstitutional” and “a dangerous bill.” The final bill was the result of a “compromise” struck with the administration by John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and John Warner, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee. They had at first objected on principle to the powers that the administration was still claiming in the treatment of detainees, thereby denying the administration enough votes to pass its own proposal. But the new “compromise” bill leaned very much toward the administration’s position. It stripped the right of habeas corpus not only from foreign suspects arrested abroad, who may or may not have been “enemy combatants” (which had already been part of the law as the result of an amendment offered by Graham in 2005), but now also from millions of permanent or long-term foreign residents in the United States whom the government alleges are abetting terrorist causes.
The final bill also circumvented the Supreme Court’s ruling, in the Hamdan case in June 2006, that the detention and treatment of prisoners captured in the administration’s war on terror were governed by Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention (which includes limits on torture). Instead of unilaterally amending, or nullifying, Common Article 3, as the administration had advocated, it slipped the Bush administration’s defiance of the Geneva Convention into another section of the bill. This narrowed the War Crimes Act—a 1996 law that defines a war crime under US law to include a “grave breach of the Geneva Conventions”—so as to give the administration more leeway on the detention and torture of detainees. (In any event, the Bush administration has never prosecuted anyone under the War Crimes Act.) McCain suggested that waterboarding and confinement at freezing temperatures would be banned, but the administration has refused to be specific about what limits on torture it will observe.
This sleight-of-hand was another form of “whack-a-mole,” a term McCain had used to describe the moving about of US troops in Iraq from one trouble spot to another. At Bush’s insistence—apparently to meet a demand of CIA interrogators—the final version of the bill also gave retroactive immunity to those in the military and the CIA who had abused prisoners. (It did strike a compromise with McCain and his allies over their objection that the administration bill denied detainees access to any evidence that would be used against them; in the end, the bill allowed the evidence to be presented to the detainees’ attorneys if the presiding judge approved.) McCain’s support for the final version of the detainees bill gave it legitimacy. This was further evidence that the former free-spirited maverick who campaigned for the 2000 Republican nomination for president on the “Straight Talk Express” was morphing into just another panderer—to Bush and the Republican Party’s conservative base.
Leahy was particularly outraged by the provision of the Military Commissions Act expanding the denial of habeas corpus. Along with Specter, he had sought but failed to obtain any jurisdiction for the Judiciary Committee over the provision, and then offered an amendment to strip it from the bill, which lost on a narrow vote of 48–51. He and Specter recently proposed legislation to repeal this provision of the military commissions bill, which was rammed through Congress before the election so that Bush could claim it as an achievement in his war on terror. Now Leahy will work with Carl Levin of Michigan, the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to reconsider a broad range of issues involving the treatment of detainees. Similar changes in House committee chairmanships will help to bring these changes about.
The President has certainly been weakened, but he will not be without power in the next Congress. Not only are the Democratic majorities narrow, but Bush has sometimes been able to win support from centrist Democrats for some of his proposals, including tax cuts and his nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court. Since overruling the President’s veto requires a vote of two thirds of both houses of Congress, Bush will likely be able to block almost any legislation he opposes. Another limit on the Democrats’ power is that, in effect, sixty votes are necessary in the Senate to get most things done, since senators may filibuster most legislation they oppose.
The Democrats’ euphoria over their congressional victories was suddenly punctured when, over the weekend after the election, Nancy Pelosi, the next House speaker, made the large, and puzzling, misstep of throwing her support for majority leader to John Murtha of Pennsylvania, an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq, who was making a bid for the job against Steny Hoyer of Maryland, who was next in line for the position. Murtha, a decorated former Marine, was the first significant figure in Congress to call for a quick pullout of US troops in Iraq. The agreeable Hoyer is popular with fellow Democrats, and has been an effective party whip. Pelosi made the mistake of acting on a grudge she held against him: when Hoyer ran against her in 2001 for majority whip, Pelosi took his challenge personally, even though competition for congressional leadership is routine. Moreover, Murtha had managed Pelosi’s campaign for the post, and Pelosi was also grateful to him for providing cover for other Democrats to speak out against the war.
That Pelosi threw herself into this fight without any reason to believe that she would have enough votes to win raised questions about her judgment, and also exposed divisions among the House Democrats. The higher people climb in power, the more careful they have to be about indulging the petty grudges, jealousies, and rivalries that are endemic in Washington poliics. The new speaker of the House lost her first, ill-considered fight two to one.
Pelosi was within her rights to pass over Jane Harman of California as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee—Harman was not “entitled” to the job, which is the choice of the leadership, and her term on the committee was expiring. Pelosi felt that Harman hadn’t been tough enough on the administration—she had okayed the NSA wiretapping program—but it was clear that she was also acting out of personal dislike for her, creating the unfortunate impression of a catfight. The lengthy search for Harman’s replacement, during which both the black and Hispanic caucuses championed one of their own, also exposed the fact that the House Democrats are more a collection of ethnic and ideological groups than a unified party. (She chose a Hispanic, Silvestre Reyes, third in seniority on the committee, after the second-in-line, Alcee Hastings, a black, was seen as having too many ethics problems—he’d been impeached as a federal judge.) Since many of the newly elected Democrats come from districts that voted strongly for Bush in 2004, there is no guarantee that these seats will remain in Democratic hands when Bush is no longer in office. The skill of congressional leaders may be critical to their survival in the next election.
The national vote against the Iraq war only intensified the question of what Bush and Congress would do about it. This fall, the administration finally made a show of facing up to the fact that things were going badly in Iraq. Even some of the neocons, including Richard Perle and Kenneth Adelman, who were among the most ardent supporters of overthrowing Saddam and spreading democracy in the Middle East, began to express doubts about the war—blaming the calamity that ensued on the Bush administration’s incompetence and on the Iraqis who failed to capitalize on their glorious new opportunity—but not questioning their own earlier assumptions about the happy outcome of such a venture. Bush ordered up a rethink before the election and studies have been taking place in the Pentagon and the National Security Council.
Some of this, of course, was in anticipation of the report by the Iraq Study Group led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton—a strange “commission” that really wasn’t officially authorized by anyone. It derived from an idea put forward by Frank Wolf, a Republican congressman from Virginia, who upon his return from his third discouraging trip to Iraq, in September 2005, decided that what was needed was a panel of “wise men” to look at the problem with “fresh eyes.” This was, of course, a way of putting pressure on an administration that didn’t seem to know what to do and a President who didn’t seem to recognize the extent of the problem.
Wolf lined up some important allies on Capitol Hill, including the then Armed Services Committee chairman John Warner, and enlisted the help of some Washington think tanks, in particular the United States Institute of Peace, an independent organization funded by Congress, and he got $1 million from Congress for his vaguely defined project. The leaders chosen to head the project and pick the other commissioners were not surprising: Lee Hamilton, a co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, is everyone’s idea of a wise, and safe, Democrat; and James Baker is not only a former secretary of state but is one of the canniest operators Washington has seen. While Washington has enjoyed the spectacle of “Poppy” Bush’s pals coming to the rescue of the son who messed up, there were other reasons for choosing Baker, who made sure that the President approved of his being co-chairman. (Baker has been talking to George W. throughout the year, but for three years, his father’s people had been shut out.) Nonetheless, the commission marked the return of the “realists” so disparaged by the neocons as they pursued their dream of establishing democracy throughout the Middle East.
The result was, inevitably, a panel of establishment figures who could be counted upon to be critical but not to go too far. The leaders wanted unanimity, to give the report more strength, but to get unanimity, of course, the members of the commission had to engage in horse-trading, which went on until just before the report was issued; for example, Democrats wanted to include a timetable for the withdrawal of troops, and Baker, not wanting to include proposals that the President would dismiss out of hand, opposed a precise schedule. They compromised by making a unanimous recommendation that most combat troops “could” be withdrawn by the first quarter of 2008. Many Washingtonians were surprised by the report’s scathing criticism of the administration’s policies and by its recommendation for withdrawal of combat troops. A Republican senator described the call for withdrawal from a respected bipartisan group “a breakthrough.” As expected, the commission also recommended that the US rely more on diplomacy and engage with Syria and Iran. Baker has made it clear that he believes the US should have been talking to them all along. But it is far from clear how helpful they will be in the case of Iraq.
The Baker-Hamilton commission proposal on withdrawing troops is remarkably close to, if more open-ended than, a proposal offered in June by Democratic senators Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Carl Levin of Michigan, which called for a beginning of redeployment in four to six months and received the votes of thirty-nine Democratic senators; Lincoln Chafee was the only Republican to vote for it. Reed and Levin say numerous Republicans told them that they agreed with the proposal but couldn’t abandon the President at that point. Now some are expected to be more willing. Members of the new Democratic Congress are itching to propose a specific date for the beginning of the redeployment. But they want such a proposal to have bipartisan backing, and to avoid having the blame for a bad outcome in Iraq shifted from Bush to them.
Almost everyone in Washington understands, even if they don’t say it, that there is no real solution to what now seems to be the most disastrous foreign policy decision in American history. It’s now a matter of how to bring America’s involvement to an end with the fewest bad consequences. Despite all the studies and reports and amendments, events in Iraq itself will likely define the outcome.
—December 13, 2006
January 11, 2007