This column was written by David Corn.
Payback's a bitch.
There is no way to spin the election results. They were a repudiation of George W. Bush, his party, his agenda, and his war. The commander-in-chief argues that he is fighting a war in Iraq that is essential to the survival of the United States. The electorate sent a message: we don't buy it. Political genius Karl Rove and GOP chieftain Ken Mehlman, with their scare tactics (defeatist Democrats will surrender to the terrorists; Nancy Pelosi will destroy the nation) and below-the-belt ads, were not able to defy popular sentiment. Comeuppance was the order of the day. Because of Bush, R became a scarlet letter. In Rhode Island, incumbent Republican Senator Lincoln Chaffee, a moderate who voted against the war in 2002 and against Bush in 2004, enjoyed a 66 percent approval rating; still, voters sent him packing. Children, pay attention: If you're a president who misleads the nation into war and then mismanages that war, you might sneak past a reelection but then bring ruin upon your party. The Bush-wreaked reality trumped the Rove-designed rhetoric — finally. The voters chose not to stay his course. The market worked.
The Democrats won control of the House and came close with the Senate. As of 1:00 AM, in Virginia, Reaganite-turned-Democrat Jim Webb was barely ahead of Senator George "Macaca" Allen — though a recount seemed likely. In Missouri, the Senate race was a virtual tie. If the Democrats should win in each, the Senate would be theirs. However, Tennessee — where Democrats were trying to elect Representative Harold Ford Jr., an African-American — was a bridge too far. But even without the Senate, the Democrats will now be able to counter Bush and advance a platform of their own.
At a victory party at a Capitol Hill hotel — attended by thousands of Democrats, many wearing a badge proclaiming, "A New Direction for America" — a senior House Democratic staffer said, "The word has come on down from on high: no gloating. Those of us who were around in 1994 remember Republicans telling us that we were no longer needed and could get lost — literally. We've been told not to handle this differently." But it's certainly true that the House Democrats have assumed power in a slightly less triumphant manner than did the GOP in the so-called Republican Revolution of 1994. Though Democrats did have an agenda for the campaign, they know that the election was a referendum on Bush and the rubber-stamp Republicans, not their pet legislative ideas. As Senator Chuck Schumer, the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee proclaimed, "the message of this election came down to one word: change." That is, boot Bush's compatriots out of office. To do this, voters had to go Democratic.
The voters have "reluctantly given us the keys," said Terry McAuliffe, a former head of the Democratic Party. And, he added, the Democrats will have to prove themselves — quickly. How to do so? By briskly passing legislation on popular issues — boosting the minimum wage, increasing homeland security funding, lowering interest rates on college loans, empowering the federal government to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies to achieve lower drug prices for Medicare. Even if such legislation dies in a Republican-controlled Senate or is vetoed by Bush, the Democrats can shape the coming presidential election. (Another major win in a night of wins for the Democrats was the election of Representative Ted Strickland as governor of Ohio. "You can't win the presidency without Ohio," McAuliffe noted. And with a Democrat running the state, the Ds will have an advantage there in 2008.)
As for the Republicans, this election will unleash the furies within that party. In sorting out this defeat, GOPers will find themselves confronting their internal conflicts. Social conservatives will square off against economics-first libertarians. The party could split along another line — between those who stick with Bush and those who want to cut and run from the albatross-in-chief. It could all get quite acrimonious, especially with 2008 politics influencing the blame-game. Republicans could end up looking like Democrats.
But the bottom-line is clear: the Bush presidency is over. At least, as Bush and Dick Cheney have envisioned it. They can no longer act imperiously. They have lost the public. And there is now an opposition that can check and investigate their actions abroad and at home. But the Democrats still have to complete the sale. At the victory bash, Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi declared, "We need a new direction in Iraq." She didn't say what it would be. The Democratic victory — as sweet as it is for the Democrats — is very much an unfinished work.
By David Corn
Reprinted with permission from The Nation