Mulling over the midterm elections nearly a week after the event, one of the most striking facts is how few surprises there were. The voters clearly wanted to express their dissatisfaction with the course of the war in Iraq, and the only available gesture was to vote against Republican control of Congress. That was a little unfair to Congress (which, after all, has had very little to do with the conduct of the war), but only a little, since this Congress has its own sorry record of overspending and corruption, for which it richly deserved a spanking.
The remarkable thing is that the spanking wasn't far worse. The number of seats the GOP lost, in both the House and the Senate, were astonishingly close to the average losses suffered by the incumbent party in the sixth year of a presidential term. And the margins by which they were lost were, in many cases, excruciatingly small. In one case after another, the winner just barely squeaked by. The Democrats were simply lucky that, this time, it was mostly their candidates that did the squeaking.
So let us hear no more about the supposed long-term consequences of the Democratic victory -- "party realignments," and the like. The Democratic Party still suffers from fundamental structural problems that prevent it from being a truly viable national party. It is scarcely a party at all. It has become, instead, a coalition of separate minorities (blacks, gays, feminists, environmentalists, atheists, etc.), each with its own little agenda and sharing a common hatred of the American majority. These can, collectively, add up to a lot of votes, but they find it extremely difficult to unite on any of the broader themes that animate the American people.
It will be interesting to see how the Democratic leadership conducts itself in the next two years. Some of the early signs have been encouraging. There has been a lot of talk about working with President Bush on a "bipartisan" agenda. On Iraq in particular, it appears to have dawned on the Democrats that now they will be expected to come forward with proposals of their own, rather than simply condemning the administration's conduct of the war. If so, it is possible that agreement can be hammered out on various steps to bring about a better result there -- perhaps along lines to be suggested by the Baker commission.
But first the two sides will have to agree on the ultimate objective. Do we want to win in Iraq, or simply pull out and trust that the Islamic jihadists will be satisfied with that and go back to tending their goats? It is necessary to ask whether the American people truly realize the depth and persistence of the jihadists' determination to destroy the Western world, and the suicidal lengths to which their supporters are willing to go to bring that about. If we don't, reaching bipartisan agreement on a strategy for the Middle East may prove -- fatally -- impossible.
All this impacts directly, of course, on the presidential election coming up in 2008, and on the two parties' choice of presidential candidates. Assuming we are still enmeshed in some sort of military operation in the Middle East, both candidates will be expected to outline pretty clearly what their ongoing policy would be. One or both may be tempted to adopt Richard Nixon's strategy in 1968: to hint that he had a "secret plan" for extricating us from Vietnam, without specifying exactly what it was. But this time the American people will surely want to know more.
So the 2008 election, and its preliminaries in the party primaries, the conventions, and the election campaign itself, will almost certainly constitute a Great Debate on the future of U.S. foreign policy, with particular reference to the threat from Islam.
Meanwhile, the 2006 elections have ended the long Republican monopoly on running the nation's affairs. The Democrats, ready or not, are back in the game, and the nation's future depends on what turns out to be the meaning of "bipartisanship."