There is a bipartisan tendency in America to over-interpret
elections. We are constantly dubbing things "historic," and "unprecedented,"
when they are considerably less than that. We're in the process of
over-interpreting the midterm elections of 2002, and there is danger for
Republicans in that.
First, consider that election success often precedes governing
failure. Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats won the largest victory in
American history in 1936, the year Roosevelt proclaimed that his generation
had a "rendezvous with destiny," but by 1938, recession and the
"court-packing" plan had undercut the landslide. Lyndon Johnson won a
"historic" election in 1964 but botched Vietnam so badly that he did not
even attempt to get re-elected in 1968. Richard Nixon won an even bigger
landslide in 1972, but was forced from office two years later. And in the
aftermath of their 1994 triumph, Newt Gingrich and the Republicans saw their
advantage slip away as the government shutdown played into the Democrats'
Bill Clinton over-interpreted his 1992 victory. It wasn't that
his margin was large -- in fact, he was only the plurality winner in a
three-way race -- but his election represented the first presidency for a
Democrat since 1976, and pent-up liberal demand was strong. They pressed
their advantage with early measures like gays in the military and universal
health care only to discover in 1994 that the electorate wasn't buying all
of that. The 1994 results were a message to Clinton: We voted for a focus on
the economy, not for the whole liberal agenda.
And speaking of pent-up demand, when Republicans took control of
the Congress in 1994, they acted as if the presidency had ceased to exist
(Clinton held a press conference to deny that he was "irrelevant") and
promised a thorough overhaul of the entire government. Once again, the
centrist electorate sent a message: not so fast.
As many analysts have pointed out, this election, while
decisive, was no landslide. Shifts of a just a few hundred thousand votes in
four states would have kept the Senate in Democratic hands. Governorships
are pretty evenly divided, and Republicans control 21 state legislatures to
the Democrats' 17 -- a comfortable margin but not a blowout. Obituaries for
the Democratic Party are (some might say unfortunately) premature.
But if the Democrats are not dead, they are a minority now. It's
time for the Republicans to really, really internalize this reality and stop
acting as if they're just playing with the gavel until daddy gets back in
Part of what this should mean for the Republicans is patience.
In 1994, they were overeager to achieve policy ends they feared they might
not get a second crack at. Now, they can relax. They've held the majority in
the House of Representatives for nearly a decade, and barring some terrific
blunder, the voters are likely to give them time.
This year's electorate was sending a message about security --
be serious. Fight the war on terror just as the president wishes it to be
fought. Don't side with union members or pettifogging ACLU types when the
security of the nation is at stake. There is much ground to cover on this
score alone. We have not yet begun to get serious about immigration reform,
tracking of visitors, monitoring of foreign students, and sensible ethnic
profiling at airports and other highly vulnerable targets. Each of these
reforms will meet with energetic, possibly even splenetic, liberal
opposition. With the mandate of this election, Republicans should prevail.
But it would be a mistake for Republicans to believe that their
entire agenda was ratified on Nov. 5. By all means, make the case for school
choice, partial privatization of Social Security, a ban on human cloning and
tax reform. But do so with the knowledge that the electorate remains to be
convinced on these matters. Sept. 11 tilted the nation to the right because
people trust the Republicans to take national security seriously.
Republicans must take care to fulfill the voter's wishes on security. But
they must be cautious about assuming too much on other matters.