Pending Senator George Allen's effort to contest his apparent loss in Virginia, the Democratic Party has evidently seized control of both houses of Congress and reversed a 22-28 disadvantage in gubernatorial offices. Most commentators view the result as a thorough repudiation of President Bush and the Republican Party. I agree.Was the election a referendum on Republican management of crises, domestic and foreign? Perhaps. Voters are human beings, and human beings give disproportionate weight to salient, easily recalled events. The attacks of September 11, 2001, took place scarcely five years ago, and Hurricane Katrina and the ongoing military adventure in Iraq and Afghanistan loom large in many voters' minds. Would a Democratic administration or a Democratic Congress have managed these crises more competently (arguably by avoiding military entanglement in Iraq)? That is almost impossible to answer. What we do know is this: Katrina and the war did happen. The Republican politicians empowered to respond, by and large, failed.
(To be sure, the Democratic politicians who were asked to respond to Katrina fared little better.)
But this analysis runs the risk of repeating Dukakis's Folly. "What is that?", you rightfully ask. Michael Dukakis quite notoriously asserted, in the presence of a politician named Bush, that elections hinge not on ideology, but on competence. We know how well that argument worked. So let us take a different tack. Inept though they might have been (and quite palpably were), Republican politicians might have retained power had they presented a more appealing ideological package.
To me, one of the most revealing passages in journalistic accounts of the 2006 election comes from Carl Hulse's New York Times profile of newly elected Democrats in Congress:
In other words, the victorious Democrats are an ideologically diverse group. The donkey party pitched a big tent, and a wide variety of voters and candidates sought shelter underneath. I am no partisan, much less a partisan Democrat, but I do admire how the Democratic leadership finally cracked the congressional code after twelve years in exile.Carol Shea-Porter is a New Hampshire social worker who campaigned on the cheap and ran hard against the war in Iraq. Heath Shuler is a North Carolina football star who is pro-gun and anti-abortion. Jerry McNerney is a California alternative-energy entrepreneur with a doctorate in mathematics.
Representative-elect Carol Shea-Porter
Together they are part of the new mosaic of the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives — incoming lawmakers who will make a diverse group of political officeholders even more eclectic. . . . [T]he scope of Tuesday’s Democratic surge makes for a more complex picture and a broader mix of ideologies.
These diverse Democrats' Republican counterparts provide a stark contrast. As of now, several dozen hours after Election Day 2006, the Republican Party is an ideologically united band of partisans dedicated to a narrow set of causes, falling mainly into an explosive cluster of social issues (abortion, homosexuality, embryonic stem-cell research) and a jingoistic approach to managing terrorism at home and abroad. The Republican Party is historically the party of big business, but I am at a loss to explain what today's Republican Party offers by way of economic prescriptions besides a reflexive hatred of taxation. Tellingly, Wall Street no longer backs the GOP. Silicon Valley never did.
As of 2006, American politics has a name for a group this cohesive and this singularly focused in its pursuit of narrow ideological goals. That name is losers.
Only yesterday, it seemed, ideological cohesion enabled Newt Gingrich's revolutionaries to seize control of the 104th Congress. Only yesterday, Karl Rove's Republican base swept George W. Bush to two presidential terms. Well, the day before yesterday, the party of Gingrich, Rove, and Bush conceded the big tent to the opposition. And now the Republican Party, shorn of its libertarian and noblesse-oblige wings, has moved from the big tent to the big top. Send home the clowns.