Things are looking up. As of today, the Democrats have won a majority in both the House, with at least 27 seats, and the Senate. The midterm elections amounted to a resounding rebuttal of the Bush administration. So much can be said about why the Democrats did as well as they did, what they will do with their new majority, and what it means for the party. Let me spend this column talking about the first of the three.
In many ways, this was Bush’s defeat more than it was the Democrats’ victory. The President’s abysmal approval ratings caused Republican candidates to disappear when Air Force One landed in their districts. The supposed “six-year itch” seemed more like a melanoma—and voters were eager to rebuke their President.
We should not be surprised, though, when we consider that Bush has repeatedly insisted that his presidency’s success is synonymous with the situation in Iraq, and, as we saw in October, the situation in Iraq has only gotten worse. In the face of rising American casualties and a collapsing provisional government, voters were appalled that a president would not even consider altering American strategy on the ground.
Another determining factor in the election was corruption. Republican strategists have claimed that they lost eight House seats directly from scandals. From Mark Foley in Florida to Bob Ney in Ohio, Republican candidates had to answer to the widespread disgust at their colleagues’ unethical behavior.
The third issue in this terrible trifecta was the economy, or, I should say, the way the president talked about the economy. President Bush and his advisers saw the economy as an antidote to the bad news coming out of Baghdad. But when the President said, “Our economy is doing great,” ordinary Americans said, “Which economy are you looking at?” That’s because the macroeconomic factors that look so good to bureaucrats in the beltway have few immediate effects in ordinary lives. Despite increasing productivity, wages are stagnating. It is no wonder then that so many of the gains from Tuesday occurred in rustbelt states like Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
Finally, Karl Rove’s strategy is dead. Speaking to and governing for the base does not work when your base whimpers in support of your president and cringes at your party’s scandals. More importantly, once you play to the extreme, you lose the center, which is where the majority of American voters reside. As Morris Fiorina puts it in his book, Culture War?, American voters aren’t divided, their choices are—and whichever party realizes that the vast majority of Americans are not ideologues, but pragmatists, is the party that will dominate national elections.
This past Tuesday, the Democrats saw that they could win the center, the independents, and, with these, the election. They did everything in their power to do that, and in a political climate like this one, it was victory made easy.
What’s more, they did not need to compromise on basic principles. Veteran columnist George Will spun the election with the assertion that the victory could be seen as an endorsement of conservatism, given how many newly elected Democrats are moderates. And yet, all 27 of the new House members back raising the minimum wage, advocate changing course in Iraq, and oppose efforts to privatize Social Security. Only 2 of the 27 oppose embryonic stem cell research, and only 5 describe themselves as “pro-life.”
The key to American politics isn’t pandering to the middle, it’s shaping it. Politicians should be in dialogue with voters at all times, but that dialogue should not be an echo. Rather, it should be a genuine conversation. To make this victory complete, Democrats have to shape the center in order to reclaim it. And that requires setting a legislative agenda that uses progressive principles to address our most pressing problems. Democrats need to offer comprehensive plans to save Social Security and solve the healthcare crisis. They need to begin a massive reinvestment in federal education funding. And they need to forge a national security strategy that makes us safer. It’s a tall order, to be sure, but one that the voters demand and the country deserves.