George Will

WASHINGTON -- At least Republicans now know where ``the bridge to nowhere'' leads: to the political wilderness. But there are three reasons for conservatives to temper their despondency.

First, they were punished not for pursuing but for forgetting conservatism. Second, they admire market rationality, and the political market has worked. Third, on various important fronts, conservatism continued its advance Tuesday.

Of course the election-turning issue was not that $223 million bridge in Alaska, or even the vice of which it is emblematic -- incontinent spending by a Republican-controlled Congress trying to purchase permanent power. Crass spending (the farm and highway bills, the nearly eightfold increase in the number of earmarks since 1994) and other pandering (e.g., the Terri Schiavo intervention) have intensified as Republicans' memories of why they originally sought power have faded.

But Republicans sank beneath the weight of Iraq, the lesson of which is patent: Wars of choice should be won swiftly rather than lost protractedly. On election eve the president, perhaps thinking one should not tinker with success, promised that his secretary of defense would remain. That promise perished Wednesday as a result of Tuesday's repudiation of Republican stewardship which, although emphatic, was not inordinate, considering the offense that provoked it -- war leadership even worse than during the War of 1812.

Tuesday's House result -- the end of 12 years of Republican control -- was normal; the reason for it was unprecedented. The Democrats' 40 years of control of the House before 1994 was aberrant: In the 140 years since 1866, the first post-Civil War election, party control of the House has now changed 15 times -- an average of once every 9.3 years. But never before has a midterm election so severely repudiated a president for a single policy.

The Iraq War, like the Alaska bridge, pungently proclaims how Republicans earned their rebuke. They are guilty of apostasy from conservative principles at home (frugality, limited government) and embrace of anti-conservative principles abroad (nation-building grandiosity pursued incompetently).

About $2.6 billion was spent on the 468 House and Senate races. (Scandalized? Don't be. Americans spend that much on chocolate every two months.) But although Republicans had more money, its effectiveness was blunted because Democrats at last practiced what they incessantly preach to others -- diversity. Diversity of thought, no less: Some of their winners even respect the Second Amendment.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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