Both Democrats and Republicans are still busy figuring out what happened in the Nov. 7 elections. The former are trying to understand why they won so that they can repeat their performance in 2008. The latter need to know why they lost so that they can change and make a comeback.
This is mostly inside baseball and undoubtedly boring or even silly to those who don't eat, drink and sleep politics 24-7. Nevertheless, the results of this political autopsy are very important. Eventually, each side will decide for itself why it won or lost -- and this will shape their political strategy for at least the next two years.
Among Democrats, there is furious debate going on as to whether their success resulted from candidates who ran to the right. A number of newly elected congressmen and senators are definitely much more conservative than the vast bulk of Washington Democrats. They are against gun control and abortion, support property rights and balanced budgets, and would not have been elected if they held liberal views on such issues.
Many credit Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, who ran the Democrats' congressional election operation, with recruiting strong candidates in traditionally Republican districts. He was often criticized by liberals who thought this was futile and a waste of resources.
In fact, Emanuel's strategy mirrored that of Republican Newt Gingrich's in the 1980s. Gingrich recognized that the principal barrier to Republican control of Congress was conservative Democrats in the South, whom Republicans had not seriously challenged in decades. After putting up tough challengers to them, most either retired or switched parties. This was the key to the Republican victory of 1994.
Emanuel's supporters argue that you can't ignore local political conditions. If only a conservative can be elected in a district, then you find a conservative Democrat to run in that district. If elected, they may not always follow the party line, but they will at least provide that one crucial vote on the first day of a new Congress when party control is determined.
If conservative Democrats are needed to provide the margin that puts liberals like Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco in the speaker's chair and makes liberals like Henry Waxman of Los Angeles chairmen of powerful committees, then so be it.
The flip side to this argument is that there was a national wave of revulsion against conservative policies, especially in Iraq, and strong support across the board for many liberal policies, such as raising the minimum wage. I am not aware of any Democrat elected last week who does not at least oppose the Bush administration's conduct of the war, even if they don't necessarily support an immediate pullout favored by liberals. Nor do I know of any Democrat who will vote against a modest increase in the minimum wage.
In short, even the most conservative of the Democratic Party's freshman class are well within its mainstream on the issues that matter today. Therefore, liberals argue, it was not conservatism that got them elected, but their support for popular liberal policies that Republicans had steadfastly opposed.
On the Republican side, they still seem shell-shocked by the results and have no clue about why they lost or what to do about it. One reason for this, I believe, is that many were genuinely surprised by the depth of their defeat, even though it had been forecast by the polls for months.
This was because there is now a fully developed alternative media where conservatives can get all their news and never hear an unfriendly voice. For months, this media -- Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, conservative Websites -- have taken the line that Republicans not only should win, not only could win but in fact would win. Over and over again, we heard about Karl Rove's secret polls showing a certain Republican victory, and Fred Barnes told us night after night on Fox News that the mainstream media's polls were wrong.
In fact, the polls were dead-on accurate. And they told anyone who read them that blind recitation of the daily White House talking points was a one-way ticket to oblivion. Yet time and again, all I heard on conservative talk radio or read on conservative blogs was that the economy is the best it ever was, that the war in Iraq is being won, that anyone who says otherwise is a liar and so on.
The one thing I know with certainty about sports and elections is that you have to be a realist to win. Living in a dream world is an absolute guarantee of defeat. I believe that if Republicans had been forced to confront reality earlier, they might have been able to turn things around. Their friends in the conservative media did them no favors by feeding them a false sense of optimism.