The "thumpin'" that the Republican Party received last week will make profound changes in policymaking in Washington and in presidential politics. On the policy side, we have already seen something in the nature of parliamentary government: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld lacked the confidence of the new congressional majority and promptly resigned. George W. Bush and Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi both expressed a hitherto indiscernible desire to work together, either out of conviction or out of calculation that it was in their interest to do so.
Democrats, having won a small majority in the House and a paper-thin one in the Senate, now visibly share the responsibility for governance, and we can expect for a time less of the scathing rhetoric they routinely deployed. Bush clearly hopes to yoke the Democrats in support of a common changed approach to Iraq.
On domestic policy, there will be constant negotiations between congressional leaders and Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman, complete with veto threats -- much like those between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. One can foresee areas of agreement. Bush will concede a fig-leaved minimum wage. On immigration, House Democrats and a solid Senate majority favor the Bush approach blocked by House Republicans. Advancing alternative fuels is another possibility. Some Democrats want tax-free savings vehicles for lower-paid workers -- which sounds a lot like the individual investment accounts Bush proposed for Social Security. On some issues, there will be no agreement -- tax reform, probably. But big issues have been addressed in the past by divided governments.
In the process, Bush is decoupling himself from the Republican Party. House Republicans, with little chance to affect outcomes, will be mostly ignored, as House Democrats were under Clinton.
Senate Republicans, with the leverage of filibuster threats, will be brought into the loop. But congressional Republicans will be on their own in setting a course for 2008.
As for presidential politics, we are still in an era of roughly even division between the parties. In the five House elections from 1996 to 2004, both parties received between 46 percent and 51 percent of the popular vote; final 2006 results are not in, but if they're outside this narrow range, it won't be by much.
Bill Clinton tried to create a natural majority for his party but fell short. George W. Bush attempted the same for his party but has also missed the mark. The 2002 and '04 Republican majorities were too small to withstand the winds of 2006.