The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative was at once a brilliant conservative victory and a humiliating Republican defeat. By an impressive 16-point margin, Michigan voters said no to racial and gender preferences in state employment, education, and public contracting. But the Republican Party, which had joined with Democrats, big business, and the activist left in opposing the initiative, reaped no political benefit. The GOP had jettisoned its party's colorblind creed in the hope of dampening Democratic turnout. In the end, Democrats swept the Senate and governor's races anyway, while the civil-rights initiative that Republicans should have endorsed sailed to a 58-42 win.
The next speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, is a San Francisco liberal of the first water, but many of her party's incoming freshmen campaigned as avowed conservatives. Indiana Democrat Brad Ellsworth, for example, described himself as anti abortion, pro-traditional marriage, "a hunter who supports the Second Amendment," and a "local sheriff" who would fight "to protect our kids from violence and filth on TV and the Internet." He and other "blue-dog" conservatives will be tugging the new Democratic majority to the right, while the defeat of liberal Republicans like Connecticut's Nancy Johnson and Iowa's Jim Leach means that the Republican minority in the 110th Congress will move to the right as well.
Voters were fed up with Republicans, and they had every reason to be. In 1994, the GOP swept to power on its "Contract with America" -- a principled platform of fiscal restraint, smaller government, individual responsibility, and cleaner politics. A dozen years later, the contract forgotten, the GOP had become an embarrassment -- a party of soaring federal budgets, gluttonous farm and highway bills, and earmarks from here to eternity. Instead of permanent tax relief and Social Security reform, the Republicans delivered a vast new drug entitlement and the McCain-Feingold crackdown on political expression. Worst of all, the party that had held itself out as the antidote to Democratic corruption now reeked of its own scandals. Week by week, the parade of sleazy Republicans seemed to lengthen -- Jack Abramoff, Bob Ney, Mark Foley, Duke Cunningham. Voters finally had enough. Exit polls nationwide found that it was corruption and scandal, far more than the unpopular war in Iraq, that voters had in mind on election day.
Churchill's political career didn't end in 1945. He came back from his defeat, and Republicans can come back, too. "We did not just lose our majority," one GOP representative said the other day. "We lost our way." When they're ready to find it again, re-reading the Contract with America would make a good start. As Bill Clinton could tell them, the electorate likes Republicans best when they live up to their Republican ideals.