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A Voter Rebuke For Bush, the War And the Right

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.

"Republicans should have been more diligent in locating instances of individual corruption and handled those appropriately," said former representative Vin Weber (R-Minn.), an adviser to GOP leaders and the White House. "We did not need to lose all those seats."

The loss provoked the start of what could be a painful period of self-examination among Republicans eager to find answers, or place blame. With moderates in the Northeast falling, the Republican conference will grow more conservative. Some said they expect Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) to step aside as party leader after the fallout from the page scandal and a new younger generation vowing to return to the promise and principles of the Gingrich revolution hopes to take the reins. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), one of several younger conservatives who has lashed out at his party's veering from core fiscal and social principles, is planning to run for leadership.

"It's not an affirmation of a Democratic agenda; I think that's clear, because they didn't offer one," said John Weaver, a strategist for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "It's about how we as Republicans set aside our principles to try to stay in power. We decided to try to spend money like Democrats, we decided not to reform or tackle big issues. And at the end of the day, the American voters said, 'Enough is enough.' "

The complexion of the Democratic presence in Congress will change as well. Party politics will be shaped by the resurgence of "Blue Dog" Democrats, who come mainly from the South and from rural districts in the Midwest and often vote like Republicans. Top Democrats such as Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) see these middle-of-the-road lawmakers as the future of the party in a nation that leans slightly right of center.

In private talks before the election, Emanuel and other top Democrats told their members they cannot allow the party's liberal wing to dominate the agenda next year. Democrats will hold 30 or 35 seats that went for Bush in the past, meaning that Democratic candidates such as Brad Ellsworth in rural Indiana are likely to face competitive races again in 2008. Still, their interests are likely to collide with those of veteran liberals such as Reps. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.) and John Conyers Jr., (Mich.), who will chair committees.

With that in mind, there is a chance the 110th Congress could begin on a bipartisan note. Democrats have vowed to move quickly to tighten ethics laws and require offsets for new spending -- two plans many Republicans will probably support in light of yesterday's results. Democrats also plan to push next year to raise the minimum wage, increase spending for cargo inspection at ports and reduce rates on student loans, all issues likely to draw some GOP support.

Partisan standoffs are likely over the war and any Democratic efforts to repeal Bush's tax cuts for upper-income America. In both cases, Democratic divisions could complicate Pelosi's plans. Democrats largely avoided detailed positions on a new Iraq strategy, but votes over spending for the military and the Iraq operation will force them to take a position.

At the center of all this will be Bush, who enters the final phase of his presidency with an opposition House and the sting of a campaign in which he was deemed to be an albatross. Bush arrived at Election Day with a lower approval rating than any other president in a midterm since Harry S. Truman in 1946. Aides took some consolation that the losses approximated the average for the sixth year of a two-term presidency.

For weeks, the White House maintained it was doing no contingency planning in case of Democratic gains. But Bush advisers are mapping out an agenda for his final two years that would include legislation that might win bipartisan support, such as extending and expanding the No Child Left Behind education program and creating a guest-worker program for illegal immigrants. Other priorities, such as adding investment accounts to Social Security, would seem virtually impossible in a Democratic House.

As the election approached, the White House said it would not trim its sails no matter who won. But as they absorbed the losses last night, Bush aides said he will return to his style of governance in Texas, when he forged a strong working relationship with a legislature led by conservative Democrats. "Obviously, we are disappointed with what happened in the House," said White House counselor Dan Bartlett. Bush, he added, will reach out to Democrats at a news conference today. "He will do his part."

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