While the losses were not large for the sixth year of a sitting president -- a net of six Senate seats and 30-odd House seats -- the significance of Nov. 7 is huge and the consequences will be historic.
But it is crucial to sift out what the nation was saying and what it was not saying. Nov. 7 was a referendum on George Bush, the Iraq war and the Republican Party, and, undeniably, a repudiation of all three. Tuesday's rout is what happens to a hubristic party that leads a nation into an unnecessary and unwise war, and presents that nation with a congressional face of self-indulgence and corruption.
But the nation that rejected Bush and the Republicans did not reject conservatism. To the contrary, it seemed to want to punish the prodigal sons for abandoning the faith of their fathers.
What did America vote against?
It voted against Bush's war of democratic imperialism and the mismanagement of that war. It voted against Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham and Mark Foley. It voted against a party that postures as conservative while indulging in a six-year pig-out on the taxpayers' tab, the altarpiece of which was a $250 million "bridge to nowhere."
What did America not vote against? It did not vote against tax cuts or conservative judges or a security fence. How do we know? Because no Democrat in a hotly contested race said he would raise taxes, reject Supreme Court nominees like John Roberts and Samuel Alito or grant amnesty for illegal aliens.
The principal beneficiary of the election may be Nancy Pelosi, but this election was no mandate for an ultraliberal feminist who spent much of the campaign in protective custody so America would not see what they would be getting when they dumped Denny Hastert.
But if this was no mandate for a new "progressive era," as the media are trying to portray it, what was it a mandate for?
The answers are apparent.
The nation agrees with the Democratic Party that the minimum wage should be raised and a cost-benefit analysis done on Bush trade deals that leave Wal-Mart cluttered with cheap Chinese goods, while hollowing out American manufacturing and converting company towns into ghost towns.
The open-borders crowd is chortling that Randy Graf and J.D. Hayworth went down to defeat, but deliberately ignores the far more relevant fact that Arizonans voted even tougher restrictions on state benefits for illegal aliens.
In Michigan, the GOP establishment deserted Ward Connerly's principled battle to end reverse discrimination. But while the GOP went down to defeat, the Connerly ballot initiative, rooted in the idea of equal justice under law for all races, swept to a 58-42 victory. When Republicans desert Reagan Democrats, Reagan Democrats desert the GOP. Which is as it should be.
On social issues, our national division that dates to the cultural wars of the '60s, endures. Embryonic stem cell research lost a huge lead to win a slim victory in Missouri, while the toughest anti-abortion law in America went down to narrow defeat in South Dakota. But gay marriage was routed in every state where it was on the ballot, and pot for medicinal purposes was rejected in libertarian Nevada.
Yet the effect of the Republican defeat on Bush appears to have been almost destabilizing. Within 48 hours, all the campaign bluster was gone and Bush was moving to accommodate his critics.
He fired and humiliated his loyal deputy Donald Rumsfeld, told the new Mexican president he would fight for "comprehensive" reform of U.S. immigration law -- i.e., amnesty and open borders -- and had Nancy Pelosi down to the Oval Office, where she was treated as a queen, despite having portrayed the president as an incompetent ignoramus.
Coupled with what appears to be the outsourcing of Iraq policy to James Baker, Bush family consigliore, the questions arise, one after the other. Is there any real core to George W. Bush? Is there any real constancy and constancy of character and purpose?
And do we have another broken presidency on our hands?
For conservatives, the lessons of 2006 seem clear. They failed in their duty to hold the Republican Party to account when it departed from principle and political ethics, and thus failed to rescue it from the rout it has now received. The Right failed in the basic responsibility of true camaraderie: Friends don't let friends drive drunk.
What conservatives should do now is what they should have been doing for six years. Stand behind the president when he fights for low taxes and conservative judges. But when he joins with Pelosi, Vicente Fox, Felipe Calderon and McCain-Kennedy for open borders, or with Dick Durbin for "moderate justices," give him another "thumping" -- like he got from conservatives when he sought to elevate Harrier Miers to the Supreme Court and just as he got from the nation on Nov. 7.