How serious is the “thumpin’” the Republicans took on Tuesday? Losing one house is significant but hardly historic. Losing both houses, however, is defeat of a different order of magnitude, the equivalent in a parliamentary system of a vote of no confidence.
On Tuesday, Democrats took control of the House and the Senate. As of this writing, they won 29 House seats (with a handful still in the balance), slightly below the post-1930 average for the six-year itch in a two-term presidency. They took the Senate by the thinnest of margins — a one-vote majority, delivered to them by a margin of 7,188 votes in Virginia and 2,847 in Montana.
Because both houses have gone Democratic, the election is correctly seen as an expression of no confidence in the central issue of the campaign: Iraq. It was not so much the war itself as the perceived administration policy of “stay the course,” which implied endless intervention with no victory in sight. The president got the message. Hence the summary resignation of the designated fall guy, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Nonetheless, the difference between taking one house versus both — and thus between normal six-year incumbent party losses and a major earthquake that shakes the presidency — was razor thin in this election. A switch of just 1,424 votes in Montana would have kept the Senate Republican.
A margin this close should no longer surprise us. For this entire decade the country has been evenly divided politically. The Republicans had control but by very small majorities. In 2000, the presidential election was settled by a ridiculously small margin. And the Senate ended up deadlocked 50-50. All the changes since then have been minor. Until now.
But the great Democratic wave of 2006 is nothing remotely like the great structural change some are trumpeting. It was an event-driven election that produced the shift of power one would expect when a finely balanced electorate swings mildly one way or the other.
This is not realignment. As has been the case for decades, American politics continues to be fought between the 40-yard lines. The Europeans fight goal line to goal line, from socialist left to the ultranationalist right. On the American political spectrum, these extremes are negligible. American elections are fought on much narrower ideological grounds. In this election, the Democrats carried the ball from their own 45-yard line to the Republican 45-yard line.
The fact that the Democrats crossed midfield does not make this election a great anti-conservative swing. Republican losses included a massacre of moderate Republicans in the Northeast and Midwest. And Democratic gains included the addition of many conservative Democrats, brilliantly recruited by Rep. Rahm Emanuel with classic Clintonian triangulation. Hence Heath Shuler of North Carolina, anti-abortion, pro-gun, anti-tax — and now a Democratic congressman.
The result is that both parties have moved to the right. The Republicans have shed the last vestiges of their centrist past, the Rockefeller Republican. And the Democrats have widened their tent to bring in a new crop of blue-dog conservatives.
Moreover, ballot initiatives make the claim of a major anti-conservative swing quite problematic. In Michigan, liberal Democrats swept the gubernatorial and senatorial races, yet a ballot initiative to abolish affirmative action passed 58-42. Seven out of eight anti-gay marriage amendments to state constitutions passed. And nine states passed referendums asserting individual property rights against the government’s power of eminent domain.
To muddy even more the supposed ideological significance of this election, consider who is the biggest winner of the night: Joe Lieberman. Just a few months ago, he was scorned by his party and left for dead. Now he returns to the Senate as the Democrats’ 51st seat — and holder of the balance of power. From casualty to kingmaker in three months. Not bad. His Democratic colleagues who abandoned him this summer will now treat him very well.
Lieberman won with a platform that did not trim or hedge about seeking victory in Iraq. And he did it despite having a Republican in the race who siphoned off ten percent of the pro-war vote. All this in Connecticut, a very blue state.
The public’s views on what we ought to do with the war remain mixed, as do its general ideological inclinations. What happened on Tuesday? The electorate threw the bums out in disgust with corruption and in deep dissatisfaction with current Iraq policy. Reading much more into this election is a symptom of either Republican depression or Democratic wishful thinking.
(c) 2006, The Washington Post Writers Group