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 debaclesome 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.