The Election 'Earthquake'
President Bush has been making a brave show of optimism, but unless all the warning signs are wrong, Tuesday's election is going to confront the White House with a radically changed political environment -- one much less to the president's liking.
Chances are there will be far fewer Republicans in office at all levels from the Capitol down to the courthouse. The Karl Rove strategy of building up the base and mobilizing it to overwhelm any Democratic opposition may no longer be viable.
One man who knows what it is like to have the legs knocked from under a president's political strategy is Leon Panetta, who was serving in the Clinton White House as chief of staff when the Republicans took control of the House and Senate in the 1994 elections.
I phoned Panetta the other day at the educational institute he now runs in Monterey, Calif., and asked him how a presidential team reacts to that situation.
For Clinton and his aides, Panetta said, 1994 was a complete shock. "We knew the Senate would be close, but we thought we had enough margin in the House [258 seats, 40 more than a majority] to withstand anything -- and it had been ours for 40 years. The first we knew we might lose it was early on Election Day, when George [Stephanopoulos] got the early exit polls and said, 'We're in trouble.' "
Panetta described three stages of reaction -- something that may be a clue to what the Bush team will experience. "First," he said, "there were a few days of complete shock, glazed eyes, slow reactions -- what you saw in people after Hurricane Katrina. Then there was a period of anger, people asking, 'Why wasn't it anticipated? Why wasn't something done?' "
"And then," he said, "you get to the real question: How the hell do you make it work now?"
Clinton's comeuppance came after only two years in office -- not six. And, Panetta said, "despite the pain, it helped the president in two ways."
They sound contradictory, but perhaps they are not. "The confrontation with Republicans helped him define his administration. It had been pretty fuzzy in the first two years, but now he was able to say, 'I'm not them.' " Clinton played off House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and in their first showdown, the budget fight that led to a shutdown of government, Clinton emerged the clear winner.
But also, Panetta said, the 1994 election loss "moved Clinton to the center and gave him the ability to cut deals he couldn't have made otherwise." The first fruit of that compromise was the 1996 welfare reform bill, now often described as the single most successful social policy innovation in decades. Later came other compromises that led to a brief period of balanced budgets.
Could George Bush do the same thing? Panetta's answer was: "Yes, but bad habits are hard to break." He meant Bush's habit of relying on party-line Republican majorities to support his bills and his nominees. For six years, Bush has been working with a Republican leadership in the House that systematically excluded Democrats from the decision-making.
"The fundamental question for Bush," Panetta said, "is, does he want to fight or does he want to govern?"
I don't know what the answer will be, but I know that the Republicans' chances of recovering from 2006 depend on it.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has rebounded remarkably after he moved from confronting the Democratic legislature to cooperating with it and co-opting it, showing the way a hostile constituency can be converted by politics that rises above partisanship.
Bernadette Budde, the shrewd political observer who runs BIPAC, the Business Industry Political Action Committee, told me that the right description of this election cycle is not a "tidal wave" against the GOP but "an earthquake."
"A wave recedes," she said, "but an earthquake reflects deep shifts in the underlying structure. The voters are deeply dissatisfied with the failure of government to move forward on the real problems the country faces. That won't go away until they see that action is being taken."
I hope that message is heard at the White House. President Bush has two years left. It would be a shame to waste them in political warfare.