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Analysis

A Voter Rebuke For Bush, the War And the Right

After voting in Crawford, Tex., President Bush returns to the White House. The GOP tried to avoid making the midterm elections a referendum on national leadership.
After voting in Crawford, Tex., President Bush returns to the White House. The GOP tried to avoid making the midterm elections a referendum on national leadership. (By Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)

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By Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 8, 2006

The political pendulum in American politics swung away from the right yesterday, putting an end to the 12-year Republican Revolution on Capitol Hill and delivering a sharp rebuke of President Bush and the Iraq war.

The GOP reign in the House that began with Newt Gingrich in a burst of vision and confrontation in 1994 came crashing down amid voter disaffection with congressional corruption. The collapse of one-party rule in Washington will transform Bush's final two years in office and challenge Democrats to make the leap from angry opposition to partners in power.

How far the balance shifts to the left remains to be seen. The passion of the antiwar movement helped propel party activists in this election year, and the House leadership under the likely new speaker, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), hails from the party's liberal wing. But the Democrats' victory was built on the back of more centrist candidates seizing Republican-leaning districts, and Pelosi emphasized that she will try to lead without becoming the ideological mirror of Gingrich.

"We have learned from watching the Republicans -- they would not allow moderates a voice in their party," Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said in an interview as he waited to see if Democrats would take control of the upper chamber as well. "We must work from the middle."

The Democrats' return to power in at least one house and gains in the other mean Bush will almost certainly face powerful pressure to reassess his Iraq policy -- not just from Democrats but from within his own party. Even many Republicans hanging on last night emerged from a bruising election restive and looking for a fresh direction.

By the end of the campaign, Republicans were airing ads distancing themselves from Bush's wartime leadership, and the president himself abandoned the phrase "stay the course." The White House is placing hope on a study group headed by former secretary of state James A. Baker III, a longtime Bush family intimate, to offer a new approach to the war. Yet Vice President Cheney laid down a marker last week, saying "it doesn't matter" if the war is unpopular and vowing to continue "full speed ahead."

During a victory speech last night, Pelosi made clear that would not suffice: "We cannot continue down this catastrophic path. And so we say to the president, 'Mr. President, we need a new direction in Iraq. Let us work together to find a solution to the war in Iraq.' "

The results represented the first defeat at the polls for Bush politics since he came to power after the 2000 presidential election ended with a recount battle. In back-to-back elections after that, he defied conventional wisdom to pull out victories, tapping into a strain of anxiety that has flavored the national electorate since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Bush and senior adviser Karl Rove tried to replicate that strategy this fall, hoping to keep the election from becoming a referendum on the president's leadership and instead make it a choice between two parties with different governing philosophies. "One thing that's true is this will have been a referendum election," said Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego.

Overall, 59 percent of voters surveyed in a news media consortium series of exit polls yesterday expressed dissatisfaction or anger with the Bush administration; 36 percent said they cast their vote to express opposition to Bush, compared with 22 percent who were voting to support him. Fifty-six percent of voters support withdrawing some or all U.S. troops from Iraq, which will embolden Democrats pushing for a pullout.

Corruption proved to be a more potent issue than it had appeared even weeks ago. After 12 years in control, the Republicans who took power with Gingrich promising to sweep out a calcified and ethically bankrupt Democratic leadership found themselves perceived as becoming what they had tried to expunge. Exit polls found 41 percent of voters rated corruption "extremely important" to their decision.

"What you saw was the voters speak out very loudly on the way Congress conducted itself," said Rep. Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.). "We really have to take stock of where we are and we have to go about doing things different." Cantor said this includes a renewed emphasis on fiscal discipline and ethics reform.


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