In the Republican Party, even those of us who are optimistic by nature and make it a point to try to see a half-empty glass as actually half-full, will find it difficult to put a smiling face on today’s election results. As the hour approaches midnight (Pacific Time), we need to begin getting used to the grating, nails-on-chalkboard sound of “Speaker Pelosi” and, most likely, “Majority Leader Reid.” We all knew the GOP would lose seats in both houses of Congress, but the stunning scope of the across-the-board Democratic victories (in the House, the Senate, governorships, and state legislatures) makes 2006 precisely the sort of tidal wave election conservatives had fought to avoid. You can’t explain this sort of sweep with reference to better candidates or strategy for the other side, or blame it all on biased reporting from the media (though that slanted reporting undoubtedly contributed to Republican difficulties in changing the dynamics of most major races).
The numbers from every corner of the country make it clear that the American people meant to send a message to their leaders, and the future of the conservative movement depends on an accurate reading of the substance they meant to communicate, and a realistic reassessment of the current state of our politics. Herewith, some lessons from the debacle—some of them obvious, but others counterintuitive and unexpected.
1. Yes, the public voted for “change” in Iraq, but that doesn’t necessarily mean surrender or unconditional withdrawal. Exit polling showed 59% of voters expressing “disapproval” or the Iraq war, but many (if not most) of those voters dislike Bush’s policy because they feel it’s not aggressive enough. Tens of millions of Americans long to see a more intense, more focused approach to crushing the insurgency, even if it means more boots on the ground.
Many of these citizens voted for Democratic candidates (who remained deliberately vague about their alternatives to Bush policies) as the only means to register their frustration with the President’s allegedly “half-hearted” approach to warfare. These militant victory-at-any-cost, protest voters will get little satisfaction from the new Democratic majorities: the prospect that the Pelosi-crats would actually approve more funding and more force for Iraq is dim to non-existent. Instead, the President will receive the long-awaited report from the bi-partisan Baker Commission that will feature significant suggestions about redeployment and more effective cooperation with the Iraqi government. Bush will also seek Democratic support for quick implementation of those suggestions, with the aim of giving the struggling democracy in Iraq at least some chance to establish itself without encouraging the terrorists by stipulating a date-certain U.S. withdrawal.
2. You can’t beat something with nothing. Under nearly impossible circumstances the Republicans conducted a decent campaign but failed to provide voters with enough reason to vote for the GOP instead of simply voting against the Democrats. Given the widespread dissatisfaction with the last two years of Republican rule, they needed to suggest some convincing reason that two more years of GOP dominance would produce the improvement and change the public demanded. The party leadership could have come together to promise quick attention to some important new issues that hadn’t been addressed sufficiently in the last Congress--- energy independence, say, or radical tax simplification, or across-the-board cuts in spending, or sweeping law suit reform. Given the intra-party bickering over the last six months, however (especially concerning anti-terror legislation and immigration) the Republicans looked incapable of working together for any purpose. The Dems might emphasize meaningless gestures (raising the minimum wage, lowering interest rates on government backed student loans, officially endorsing the recommendations of the 9/11 commission) but at least they looked united in doing so.
3. Forget the conventional wisdom about the big gap between red states and blue states. The media emphasis on regional differences always distorted reality but this election should force the permanent abandonment of the meaningless red/blue distinction. Montana, supposedly the reddest-of-red states, may well end up with a Democratic governor and two Democratic Senators. California, theoretically the bluest-of-blue states, not only re-elected its Republican governor in a landslide, but also appears poised to elevate GOP candidates (including some outspoken and cantankerous conservatives) to three or four other statewide offices. In Kansas, which gave Bush 64% in 2004, Democrats enjoyed sweeping victories, and so on. The definitive designation of an entire state as either “red” or “blue,” Republican or Democrat, ignores the impact of circumstances, personalities, and issues.
4. Gay marriage remains a potent issue, but not a partisan one. Despite many articles claiming that public opinion had shifted on the issue of same sex marriage, and predicting that some of the ballot initiatives defending traditional marriage might actually lose on Election Day, opinion looks as lopsided as always regarding the effort to redefine matrimony. In all eight states in which activists placed marriage protection initiatives on the ballot, those initiatives appear to have passed (though South Dakota remains surprisingly close). In Tennessee, where the Democratic governor captured over 60% of the vote, the electorate favored one of the most sweeping anti-gay-marriage measures in the country by a stunning margin of more than 80%. If these crushing victories for traditionalists helped Republican candidates elsewhere on the ballot, however, that assistance is far from apparent. After today’s vote, media talking heads and gay rights advocates need to acknowledge that the opposition to the redefinition of marriage isn’t just a partisan ploy, but a sincere conviction shared by strong majorities in every corner of the country.
5. Despite the traditional GOP distrust of pollsters and pundits, their predictions proved shockingly accurate this time. In 2000 and 2002 and 2004, elections produced some big surprises and some of the high-profile polling proved misleading. This time, the pros seemed to have achieved new levels of professionalism—calling each race (in the most up-to-date figures) with unexpected accuracy. The pollsters proved right not only in forecasting outcomes, but even when it came to margins – properly designating those contests that counted as close and those that did not. The New York Times on election day cited a prediction by Charlie Cook, one of the most respected insider analysts, that declared that Democrats would gain “between 20 and 35 seats in the House.” Give credit where it’s obviously due: the experts appear to have put aside partisanship (for now) and refined the reliability of their product.
6. The Republicans need new leadership in both houses of Congress. As much as I respect Denny Hastert, it would be a disaster for him to take on the job of House minority leader after stepping down as Speaker. He should continue his valuable service as a senior, respected member of Congress, but the GOP desperately needs a new, fresh face to address the public as the anti-Pelosi. Hastert would simply remind voters of why they threw the GOP out of control in the first place. Mike Pence of Indiana, a universally admired and charismatic conservative, would be an excellent alternative to lead a new Republican effort to recapture the House within two years. The Senate will also get new leadership for the GOP, since Bill Frist is stepping down. Whether the Republicans hold onto their control by the slenderest possible 50-50 split, or whether they slide into minority status, it would be a serious mistake to allow the competent Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to step forward (as expected) as their leader. He’s a first class legislative tactician who possesses all of the charismatic flair and telegenic presence of Harry Reid. In this situation, Republicans need to emphasize and dramatize new beginnings and fresh starts. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas (triumphantly re-elected in this difficult year) would help counter some of the first-woman-speaker publicity headed Pelosi’s way, while signaling to all voters that Senate Republicans wanted to put the bad-old-days definitely behind them.
7. Dramatic turnarounds are possible--within months, not years. One year ago Arnold Schwarzenegger qualified as the laughing stock of the political world. He had called a special election to vote on a series of much-needed conservative ballot initiatives he helped to draft, but every one of them went down to resounding defeat. Arnold instantly decided to re-launch his governorship, to appoint new staff, and to stress his ability to get along with the Democratic legislature at the same time he confronted them or vetoed their legislation when necessary. For some conservatives, Arnold’s new direction amounted to a betrayal but he still managed to single-handedly reinvigorate the previously moribund California Republican Party. A similar turnaround for Republicans on the national level doesn’t require compromises on the issues, more “moderate” positions, abandoning conservative principles, or playing footsie with Barney Frank (please, no!) or Barbara Boxer. It does, however, demand a serious re-branding, openness to new ideas, and a more measured, less partisan, less self-righteous tone. Above all, the people want to see some positive accomplishments in Washington. The GOP shouldn’t worry that Pelosi-crats will receive exclusive credit for any achievements; there’s still President Bush (thank God) with his bully pulpit to make sure Republicans receive attention for their part in the action. Some Californians insist that Arnold proved so spectacularly successful today only because God blessed him with a singularly lousy opponent. National Republicans, however, look poised to receive a similar gift: Senator Hillary Clinton, who rolled up a huge majority in the re-election campaign. Schwarzenegger proved that with the right moves, and the right enemies, a bit of luck, and a dab of inspiration, total turnarounds and makeovers are still – and quickly—possible in American politics. That process must immediately.