Celebrated satirist Kurt Vonnegut once claimed “the US has two political parties, the winners and the losers.” On Tuesday night, congressional Republicans got to taste the sour side of election night for the first time in over a decade. Clearly, the backdrop of the 2006 election was simply about Iraq. Voters responded resoundingly to the Republicans who hatched this tragic misadventure, in favor of Democrats who either were against the war or tacitly supported it in the climate of fear which dominated the post-Sept 11th political landscape.
Politics in the US is a nasty business. Campaign 2006 was about as ugly and partisan as any in recent memory. The campaign season saw vicious attack ads which implied a candidate charged a phone sex call to taxpayers (he called the Dept. of Justice, but misdialed a single digit), and a not so subtle ad suggesting that black Senate candidate from Tennessee (Harold Ford – Democrat) had a particular affinity for white women…an inference that does not play terribly well in the resiliently racist South.
Fox News notwithstanding, there is little spinning the fact that last Tuesday was an unmitigated disaster for Republicans. So why did this happen? In simple terms, the moderate voters, the previous core of the re-defined Conservative voting block, simply had had enough. Fiscal conservatives tired of the largest budget deficits in history. The Christian Right tired of Florida Representative Mark Foley’s sexually explicit emails to teenage boys. Moderates tired of their government’s incompetence in responding to disasters like Hurricane Katrina. And virtually all Americans tired of the financial and military carnage in Iraq. Although Iraq has not yet acquired the right to be credibly compared to Vietnam, the voters did respond to some shocking parallels. Clearly, the White House is sticking to its fairy tale about winning in Iraq, despite widespread agreement among the voting population that the oil-rich nation is steadily slipping into a Sunni-Shia-Kurdish civil war.
The irony of the Republican defeat in this election, is that many of those “new” Democrats in Congress are many cases as conservative as their Republican opponents they just defeated. In fact, the last six years of the Bush presidency has seen a dramatic shifting of the political spectrum to the right, resulting in the Democrats offering up of more conservative candidates in order to entice disenchanted social moderates to the polls in their favor. Sadly though, it’s not that Democrats are seen as having the answers, but rather are seemingly less distasteful than Republicans. This, by any rational analysis, is a poor way to entrust public policy. Nevertheless, Democrats have embraced this new savior role with a combination of populist fervor and shameless opportunism. A Greek writer best explained this political tragedy in one of his works, noting how the politician proclaimed, “I need to know where my people are headed so I can get out in front and lead them”. This gentlemen, sadly, is the party of Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy in November of 2006.
In historical terms, such a mid-term bloodbath is not unprecedented. In fact, the past half-century has seen five radical off-year political shifts in Congress, as either the House, Senate, or both, switched hands to the opposition political party. Such was the case in 1958, 1966, 1974, 1982, and 1994. The last of these, in 1994, was particularly prophetic, as Republicans took both houses of Congress pledging to change Washington. The challenge will now be whether the Democrats will resiliently shed decades of wimp complex to bring an end to the carnage in Iraq, or regress to Lyndon Johnson-like political reactionism which further entrenches the U.S. in a prolonged and bloody conflict.
The election of 2006 was not about leadership, as Democrats, at least recently, have shown minimal capacity in this regard. Perhaps this is the most distressing facet of Tuesday’s results. Democrats won if for no other reason than they happen not to be Republicans. Clearly, the American electorate views the GOP as having conviction, but are an unmitigated disaster at implementing public policy. While Democrats, as ambiguous and disorganized as they might be, represent the only viable political option to the GOP. Curiously, the educated electorate, when faced with such a choice, chose to vote Democratic rather than deservedly locking themselves in a dark room and crying themselves to sleep.
The second president of the United States, John Adams, argued that political parties were distasteful primarily because they intentionally encouraged divisiveness. Currently, such a divisive two-party system ensures that a backlash on the excessiveness of one party leaves a two-year blank check for the opposition party as disenchanted voters reach for any viable alternative. Tuesday’s net gain of 34 House seats and 6 Senate seats ensures the Democrats will control both the House of Representatives (235 of 435 seats) as well as the Senate (51 of 100 seats). With their newfound victory, Democrats say they plan to implement their agenda of increasing the minimum wage, rolling back tax cuts on the wealthy, implementing the suggestions of the 9-11 Commission, and facilitating the re-deployment of soldiers currently in Iraq. That’s a delightful list, but achieving such is utterly impractical.
As appealing as the agenda might be to some voters, it requires a deep knee bend and a recalibration of expectations for the coming two years. The fact is, even with pure majorities in both chambers, even Congress has its limitations. Assuming for a moment that new Speaker Nancy Pelosi (California – Democrat) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nevada – Democrat), can manage to present a united legislative front, King George and his Imperial Presidency still retain the nuclear option granted in the Constitution: the veto. Although President George Bush has only vetoed a single bill in his previous six years, it is entirely conceivable that he could effectively protect his conservative agenda even without Congressional approval, as Democrats in Congress would be unable to muster the 2/3 majority required to override a presidential veto. In short, the best proxy for the next two years is the two-year period between 1994 and 1996, a period which Republicans held majorities in both houses of Congress, while a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, could do little more than shake his fist in the air and flirt with chubby interns.
The election of 2006 was clearly a referendum on the Presidency of George W. Bush. As resounding as the outcome might have been, it will do little to constrain the culture of convenience and indulgence that Americans have unconsciously embraced since electing George Bush to the White House. Even worse, the Democratic congressional majority are as uniquely befuddled now about how to govern as they were two short years ago under the questionable stewardship of Sen. John Kerry. After all, Republicans may be systematically flawed in their analysis and policies, but at least they have direction and conviction. Democrats, irrespective of their victory, seemingly have neither.
Despite analysis to the contrary, the ship of state did not begin to wander out of control with George and George alone. This current batch of distasteful policies, which ironically drove Americans to vote for Democrats last Tuesday, were in part made possible by a largely compliant Democratic opposition coupled with a shamelessly voyeuristic media. Of course, these shortcomings will not be changed by a Democratic majority in Congress…but rather will only serve to high to highlight the Democrats’ political opportunism and categorical lack of innovative solutions. In 1941, Russian president Joseph Stalin opined that “Democracies get the government they deserve”. While a split government may make for good television, history shows that it rarely makes for insightful public policy.
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