As anticipated, Democrats are the big winners in this week’s elections in the United States. After 12 years, the party regained control of the House of Representatives with at least a 12-seat majority and, after a neck-and-neck race in Virginia, claimed 51 of the Senate’s 100 seats.
President George W. Bush conceded that his party took a thumping at the polls. The Democrats’ good fortune will not be their country’s unless both parties end the rancor and bitter partisanship that has come to dominate Washington politics. The U.S. has vitally important things to do and its executive and legislative branches must work together to accomplish them.
All 435 members of the House of Representatives and one-third of Senate seats are up for election every other year. These biennial elections tend to focus on local issues if the president is not on the ballot. This year, however, the vote was a referendum on national politics. Mounting public anger over scandals, government performance, the war in Iraq and the war on terror, and rising government spending had pollsters and experts predicting a surging “Democratic wave” of voter discontent with existing policies. The results did not disappoint.
Democrats scored a net gain of at least 26 seats in the House (with some races still undecided) — 12 more than needed for a majority. Until Wednesday afternoon, the day after the election, the Senate was evenly split 49-49, as Democrats Jon Tester and former Navy Secretary James Webb held only razor-thin leads in Montana and Virginia, respectively. Their victories give the Democrats a one-seat majority in the Senate.
There is a wild card: Mr. Joseph Lieberman, the longtime Democratic senator from Connecticut, won re-election as an independent after losing the Democratic primary. He has promised to return to his party, but Republicans might try to tempt him to cross over to their side with an offer of a committee chair so that they can retain control of the Senate (since Vice President Dick Cheney serves as a Senate vote tie-breaker in the Republicans’ favor). It is a long shot, but a possibility.
Exit polls reflected voter disgust with what was perceived as a culture of corruption in Washington. Recent scandals included illegal activities by lobbyist Jack Abramoff, sexual predation by a Florida representative that appears to have been ignored by the GOP leadership because the congressman happened to be an effective fundraiser, and the government’s reaction to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. The last was not, technically speaking, a scandal, but many Americans considered the government’s effete response scandalous, nonetheless.
Another key concern was Iraq. Democrats tried hard to put the war at the center of local congressional campaigns, tarring incumbent Republican candidates for their support of Mr. Bush’s policies. The Democrats appeared to have succeeded. The result was anger and dismay with the partisanship that has dominated politics and a growing sense that the U.S. is heading in the wrong direction. Mr. Bush acknowledged as much in his press conference Wednesday, when he said he “shares a large part of the responsibility” for the election results.
Mr. Bush and the new speaker-elect of the House of Representatives, Ms. Nancy Pelosi of California, both called for a new spirit of cooperation and compromise. As a first sign of the president’s readiness to get a “fresh perspective,” he accepted the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had become a lightning rod for criticism of the war in Iraq and whose resignation Ms. Pelosi (and other Democrats) had demanded.
Yet, despite Democratic claims that the vote was a referendum on the Bush administration’s policies, Mr. Bush reminded Democrats that he remains the commander in chief and the foreign policy decision-maker. There will not be profound shifts in U.S. foreign policy, as congressional powers in this field are limited. There may be a repeat of “the Perry process,” a congressionally mandated review of U.S. policy toward North Korea that helped create a bipartisan platform for engaging Pyongyang. And expect some investigations into U.S. policies and more rigorous oversight, but Democratic influence will be limited — not least because a single-minded attempt to embarrass the president or settle scores would seem too partisan.
With both parties now focused on the 2008 presidential election, their key task is to demonstrate that they can accomplish things: Democrats and Republicans have to prove that they can do things for voters rather than merely punish opponents. To that end, a rise in the minimum wage, tax cuts for the “middle class,” and prescription drug reform are all highly probable.
Bipartisanship has been almost nonexistent since Mr. Bush campaigned in 2000 as “a uniter, not a divider.” It is time the two parties put national interest ahead of their own.
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