Watch CBSN Live

Smackdown! By Independents & Moderates

This commentary was written by's Dick Meyer.

On Election Day 2006, American voters did almost exactly what history would predict: giving a president in the sixth year of his administration a serious smackdown, as an electorate wary of politicians and parties hedged its bets and chose a divided government.

Since World War II, the parties that controlled the White House for two terms have lost an average of 29 House seats and six Senate seats in their second midterm elections.

This election fits tidily into that pattern. President Bush bucked another ubiquitous trap of modern presidents when he actually picked up Congressional seats for his party in the 2002 midterms, a little more than a year after 9/11. This year his luck ran out.

President Bush may have run into another historical buzz saw this year: the voters' predilection for divided government. Since Richard Nixon was elected in 1968, there have been only ten years in which one party controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress.

While the Republicans' losses this year are not any kind of historical aberration, it is clear that voters were voting on national issues and soundly protesting President Bush and his party. In CBS News exit polls, fully 60 percent said that national, not local, issues determined their vote. And 59 percent said they were either dissatisfied or angry with the Bush administration.

This election in large part was - as the Republicans had feared and the Democrats hoped - a referendum on President Bush. And President Bush lost.

Does this mean that the president will be a lame duck for his remaining two years?

Not necessarily. First of all, it's not like the president has been flying high for the past two or three years.

Support for the war in Iraq and Mr. Bush's national security policy has been steadily eroding in the electorate and Congress, where relatively little has been accomplished lately, and the most ambitious parts of the Bush domestic agenda have been held in check by Democrats and divisions in his own party.

Another thing to consider: sometimes, after large "Throw the bums out!" elections, moments of bipartisanship emerge.

"The first reaction after Democrats were wiped out in '94 was that it would be the end of the presidency for Clinton," said Norm Ornstein, a Congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative but officially non-partisan think tank. "But it ended up being a savior. Things got done."

After the GOP 1994 landslide, for example, Republicans worked with President Clinton to pass welfare reform legislation that had been debated for years.

That bipartisan moment was brief and only a few years later, the country was embroiled in impeachment hearings.

Conditions for cooperation are not exactly ripe now. "Bush will also have to work with Democratic leaders who don't like him and don't trust him," said Ornstein. "The feeling is mutual."

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, failed to generate a prolonged period of bipartisan cooperation and the hard truth is that it's difficult to envision a sustained period of pragmatic harmony emerging from what has been one of the nastiest midterm elections on record.

The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that $2.6 billion was spent on this election, much of it on television advertising and much of that on negative ads. And this year's negative ads were some of the dirtiest ever.

Soon-to-be Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi may have a hard time bringing her party to the bargaining table.

"Pelosi will have a full-time job just keeping her caucus together," said Harrison Hickman, a Democratic pollster and CBS News consultant. "The Democrats are badly fractured on fundamental issues. The leadership is very much further to the left than the members."

The danger is that the campaign of '06 will simply continue under the name of "government." Many Democrats, for example, are dead set on a new round of aggressive hearings about everything from pre-war intelligence to homeland security to the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The theater of Grand Congressional Inquisitions is generally an enemy of statesmanship.

And when it comes to the issue Democrats rode to victory on – opposition to the war in Iraq – there are no easy fixes or popular votes. "The Democrats now have to demonstrate they can get stuff done," Republican pollster Linda Divall, a consultant for CBS News, observed as the election results rolled in. "Especially on Iraq, which a lot of Democrats ran on, they have no solution, and now they will have to present some."

If the Democrats do end up with control of the Senate, the pressure to cooperate with the White House will be even greater.

The results of this election could convince politicians of both parties that cooperation, oddly enough, would be in their self-interest.

Why? Because exit polls show there's a large chunk of the electorate that is moderate, independent-minded and turned off by partisanship. In exit polls, 47 percent of voters described their views as moderate, 21 percent liberal and 32 percent conservative. And 61 percent of the moderates voted Democratic this year.

On party identification, 26 percent said they're Independent, which is in line with recent elections. But this year, Independents went Democratic by a 57-39 margin. That's what gave the day to Democrats. In the 2002 midterm, by contrast, Independents went Republican in a 48-45 split.

The bottom line: candidates ignore the middle and nonpartisan at their own peril.

Dick Meyer is the editorial director of, based in Washington.

E-mail questions, comments, complaints, arguments and ideas to
Against the Grain. We will publish some of the interesting (and civil) ones, sometimes in edited form.
By Dick Meyer
By Dick Meyer

View CBS News In