Democrats Face The Peril Of Opportunity

Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi meets with Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid November 8, 2006 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Getty Images/Karen Bleier

This news analysis was written by CBS News correspondent and U.S. News & World report columnist Gloria Borger.


Now that it's the morning after, elated Democrats need to take a moment to come to grips with the new reality: Their congressional takeover brings to Washington a wave of new members more like Bill Clinton than Howard Dean. They're largely more moderate than liberal, more fiscally conservative than old-fashioned big spenders. Some like the president's tax cuts. Others, like senator-elect Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, are anti-abortion. Or pro-gun, like Virginia's newest senator, Jim Webb.

One more reality check: This election wasn't really about the Democrats. It was about the other guys — and how they couldn't run Washington or manage the war. There was no Democratic agenda beyond their "Had Enough?" bumper sticker. Did it work? Yep. But did it produce a mandate? Nope — at least not beyond the marching orders to clean up Washington, fix Iraq, and get something done. It's a huge opportunity for the Democrats. If they're smart, they'll find a way to grab it — and fast. Immigration reform and the minimum wage top the list. Then, of course, there's finding a way out of Iraq. That's what the voters want.

What they do not want is a slew of subpoenas by Democratic committees, finger-pointing about intelligence failures, scapegoating and more talk of filibusters. Now that Donald Rumsfeld is gone, how many more times can the president cry uncle? He lost; the Democrats won. Let the governing begin.

Those instructions apply to both parties: It's not going to be easy for an administration so used to cultivating its base to reach across the aisle. (Heck, Republicans in Congress say the White House never even reached out to them.) Nor will it be a cakewalk for Democrats to keep all those liberal committee chairmen from throwing darts at their favorite targets. But the public ordered cooperation, and those who refuse to listen do so at their own peril. Consider the numbers: More than a quarter of all voters called themselves independents, self-proclaimed refugees from both parties; 47 percent said they are moderates — voting overwhelmingly Democratic. If Democrats turn left, they can forget about the White House.

The public will be watching their approach to Iraq. Voters don't want to relitigate the decision to go to war; most, in fact, were coconspirators. Nor are they interested in providing future Democratic presidential candidates with the proof that they were lied to about Iraq's weapons, so they can excuse their pro-war votes.

Voters blamed the administration for mismanagement and incompetence, and that's what they want to end. They want the war to end, too — but in the right way. If that doesn't happen, voters in 2008 could be looking for someone to take the fall. They'll ask: Whom do we blame? The people who got us into the war? Or the ones who got us out?

The First Brawl?

No doubt about it: Democrats now have some uncomfortable choices to make. Their base supporters want an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. Their newly enlarged moderate contingent is more open to finding some other way. Democrats papered over their differences during the campaign because being against Bush on Iraq was enough. That won't work now. But instead of seeking some kind of unified road map, House Democrats now seem intent on fighting among themselves. Consider the race for majority leader: Rep. John Murtha, who wants a near-immediate withdrawal from Iraq, is challenging colleague Steny Hoyer, who does not. "It's not a fight we should be having," confides a top House leadership aide. "Who wants the first brawl inside the Democratic caucus to be about the war?" Precisely.

Democrats have just months to reach consensus before they have to start voting on spending bills for the war. And if there's no plan, what will they do? Cut off funds for the troops? Hardly. The public wants to see Democrats working with Republicans to unravel the knot. That could well happen if the bipartisan Iraq Study Group comes up with a palatable exit strategy. At least that's what both sides are privately hoping.

It's all refreshing, for a change. After six years of base politics — in which each party appealed to its most partisan supporters — the middle is making a comeback. That's good news for 2008; expect the presidential wannabes to start preaching bipartisanship. After all, the public is already there. It just took some time for the political leaders to catch on to the voters' orders on governing: Just do it.

By Gloria Borger

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