House Republicans have not lost this many seats since 1974, and Senate Republicans have probably had their worst election since 1986. Republicans lost six governorships. It was a comprehensive rout. No Democratic incumbents lost. Liberal and conservative Republicans both went down. The ballot-initiative picture was a little more mixed — Michigan banned racial preferences, and several states banned same-sex marriage — but even there, the results tilted left.
This defeat had a thousand fathers. There will be a temptation simply to blame President Bush for it, given the liberal interest in continuing to weaken him and the congressional-Republican interest in avoiding blame. We’ll get to Bush’s share of responsibility in a moment. But let’s not forget how many wounds the congressional GOP inflicted on itself.
Republicans lost roughly 29 seats in the House. If party leaders had forced Don Sherwood, Bob Ney, and Mark Foley out in 2005 or early 2006, they would have cut that total by three and been able to spend more resources turning narrow defeats into narrow victories. Tom DeLay and Curt Weldon should have left earlier, too. In the Senate, Conrad Burns should have been forced out. Had Ohio governor Bob Taft been pressured to resign early, a number of races there might have turned out differently.
It is congressional Republicans, more than the president, who are responsible for the loss of the party’s reformist credentials. Republicans were perceived not just as the party in government, but as the party of government. That perception, deadly for the relatively conservative party in our politics, was accurate. When it came to earmarks, or Social Security reform, or the Foley scandal, or lobbying reform, the Republican Congress seemed more interested in preserving its own power — or sticking with dysfunctional Hill traditions — than in the public good. The Senate inexplicably dropped the issue of judges. There will, and should, be changes in the Republican leadership now, starting with Denny Hastert’s departure.
Iraq policy was obviously President Bush’s major contribution to the debacle. It may very well be that even under the best of circumstances the war would have gone badly and that one of its less important consequences would have been to hurt Republicans. But we cannot say that we have done everything possible to win it. If the short-term political pain of sending more troops to Iraq, or expanding the army, had made a difference in Iraq, it would have been worth doing, and it would have led to long-term political gains. Nor can it be said that the president has performed one of his principal wartime tasks — the maintenance of domestic will to win the war — as well as he could have. He kept to the “stay the course” mantra for far too long, and his manner of signaling American resolve was hard to distinguish from mulish stubbornness. Bush has a justified reputation for not listening to critics either inside or outside his party. When you don’t listen to your critics, you can’t engage them — and you lose your ability to affect the conversation.
These election results should cause Republicans to rethink a strategy in which the president and the congressional leadership joined. The congressional leadership did everything possible to avoid losing operational control of the floor: not letting mostly Democratic bills through, for example, or even Democratic amendments. The president, meanwhile, refused to veto almost anything so as not to fight the Republicans in Congress.
Each set of decisions may have made sense as way to build the party machine. But the combination, given the tightness of Republican control of the House, made Republicans the party of the status quo. Even when he was president and had a Republican Senate, Ronald Reagan was seen as the people’s ambassador in Washington, not least by conservatives. If Bush had vetoed a few spending bills, even to be overridden, more conservatives would have been rooting for his team this year. A less partisan strategy may also have made it possible to build an ideological majority including some Democrats.
We trust that there will now be no shortage of Bush vetoes. Democratic control of the House, and possibly the Senate, mean, however, that he will mostly be vetoing bills that the Democrats have designed to be politically costly to reject. Bush will have to find some areas in which he can cooperate with some Democrats. We hope that a pro-family tax reform is one such area.
The Democrats face some tough choices themselves. One reason that they won was that they ran more conservative candidates, and especially cultural conservatives, than they have run in many years. If those Democrats are neatly folded into a Pelosi party, they won’t hold their seats.
The Democrats’ free ride on Iraq has ended. When bills to fund our operations in Iraq come up, they will have either to fund them, to refuse funding, or to attach conditions to funding. Whatever they decide, they will have shared responsibility for Iraq policy going forward. They will not be able to paper over their divisions.
While voters had understandable reasons for favoring the Democrats, we regret their decision. They may very well have given both houses of Congress to the party of racial preferences, abortion on demand, higher taxes, lawless judging, and retreat from the war on terrorism both abroad and at home.
We will not pretend to have any detailed plan for conservatives to move forward just now. But it may be worthwhile to state the obvious, since Republicans in Washington have been quite accomplished in ignoring it. President Bush will have to figure out a way to salvage a failing Iraq policy, and congressional Republicans will have to come up with a reason for holding office beyond the perks they will no longer enjoy.