The myths of '06

Posted: Nov 15, 2006 4:34 PM
The myths of '06

Elections produce two things -- new elected officials and bogus conventional wisdom. Once they gain widespread circulation, erroneous beliefs about elections are difficult to reverse and can be nearly as important as who won or lost.

Here are seven myths rapidly gaining acceptance among conservatives, liberals or both:

--Republican losses were in keeping with typical setbacks for a party holding the White House in the sixth year of a presidency. Conservatives reassure themselves that the "six-year itch" has cost the party in power roughly 30 seats on average since World War II, so this year's losses aren't remarkable. But as liberal blogger Kevin Drum points out, most of the big "itches" came prior to the past 20 years when gerrymandering got more sophisticated. Reagan lost only five seats in his sixth year, and Clinton gained five (although he had already suffered a wipeout in 1994). For Democrats to win 29 seats despite all the advantages of incumbency enjoyed by the GOP is a big deal.

--The conservative base, discouraged by the GOP's doctrinal impurity, didn't show up at the polls. This is the bedtime story conservatives are telling themselves to show that whatever ails the party will be cured simply by becoming more conservative. In 2004, however, conservatives were 34 percent of the electorate and liberals 21 percent. In 2006, the numbers were almost indistinguishable -- conservatives were 32 percent of the electorate and liberals 20 percent. The GOP didn't lose the election with its base, but with independents, who broke against them 57 percent to 39 percent.

--Republicans lost because they weren't fiscally conservative enough. Another conservative illusion. A thought experiment: Which cuts in government would have, in and of themselves, increased the party's popularity? Expanding the widely unpopular gap in coverage in the Medicare prescription-drug bill -- the so-called doughnut hole -- to produce entitlement savings? Cutting student loans? Even "earmarked" spending for special projects back home tends -- sadly -- to be popular with local constituencies. The GOP was better about squeezing discretionary spending during the past two years than it had been during Bush's first term. Politically, it gained little from it.

--The GOP was too socially conservative for voters. This chestnut is trotted out every time Republicans lose an election. This time it is even less plausible than usual. Seven out of eight constitutional amendments banning gay marriage passed this year, often outperforming Republican candidates. That Democrats went out of their way not to antagonize social-conservative voters this year was one of the keys to their success.

--The election was a great victory for conservative and moderate Democrats. If Democratic leaders gave their candidates leeway to take socially conservative positions, this year's new crop of Democrats still isn't a departure from the party's overwhelming liberalism. A few attention-grabbing, successful Democratic House candidates, Health Shuler of North Carolina and Brad Ellsworth of Indiana, are truly conservative. But only about five of the 29 Democratic winners in the House can be considered social conservatives. They will be lonely.

--The election was a decisive ideological rejection of conservatism. Liberal opinion writers love this one. But various scandals, Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War all played major roles in degrading the GOP brand. Liberals cannot count on conservatives being associated with corruption, incompetence or an unpopular war forever.

--President Bush now must give up on the Iraq War. The rebuke to Bush was unquestionably an expression of voters' frustration with the progress of the war, but they are not ready to give up yet. According to pollster Whit Ayers, less than one-third of voters favor withdrawal. A late-October New York Times poll found that 55 percent of the public favors sending more troops to Iraq, a position now endorsed by the paper's liberal editorial board. Bush still has a window to take decisive action to reverse the downward slide in Iraq.

Elections are wonderful things. It's the election myths we can do without.