The Republican debacle

Jeff Jacoby

11/13/2006 12:00:04 AM - Jeff Jacoby

Two months after Germany's surrender in World War II, British voters dumped the Conservative prime minister who had led the nation to victory -- Winston Churchill -- and replaced him with Clement Attlee, whose Labor Party had won the election in a landslide. Embittered by his defeat, Churchill spurned King George's offer of a knighthood. "I could not accept the Order of the Garter from my sovereign," he said, "when I have received the order of the boot from his people."

Last week, American voters gave Republicans the order of the boot, stripping them of at least 29 seats in the House of Representatives and six in the Senate, and once again making Democrats the kings of Capitol Hill. It was the GOP's worst showing in decades, and since Tuesday analysts galore have been reading the entrails. It is easy to be wise after the event. But consider the judgment rendered by one of the keenest minds in American politics, who explained nearly a week *before* the election why Republican candidates were about to take a beating: "The reason we are at this moment," former president Bill Clinton told a group of Democratic donors on Nov. 1, "is that they do not represent faithfully the Republicans and the more conservative independents in the country. Otherwise, we wouldn't be here tonight. This is a sweeping, deep, big thing." According to the nation's most popular Democrat, in other words, Republicans were about to be punished for having abandoned their Republican principles. Voters were going to demote the GOP not because its agenda had grown too conservative -- but because it hadn't been conservative enough.

Exactly.

Nov. 7 was a debacle for Republicans, not conservatives. Democrats gained power in Washington, but around the country there was no shortage of evidence that the nation's tectonic shift to the right is still ongoing. For example, another seven states approved constitutional amendments barring same-sex marriage; only in Arizona was a marriage amendment narrowly defeated. The backlash against the Supreme Court's disgraceful 2005 Kelo v. New London decision continued as well, with voters in 10 states adopting new laws to protect property owners from eminent domain abuse.

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.