The Voters' Message

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

SIX YEARS OF nearly unbroken one-party rule have not been healthy for the country. The apparent Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives yesterday is a good thing. Republicans won control of the House in 1994 promising a change from Washington business as usual. Instead, entrenched by gerrymandered redistricting into what they envisioned would be a permanent majority, Republicans slid toward lax oversight, unbridled partisanship and rampant sleaziness, if not outright corruption. Voters yesterday expressed their anger at President Bush and their frustration with the war in Iraq, as well as their disgust with the arrogant misbehavior of House Republicans. Though we regret the loss of some of the most talented Republican moderates, the GOP deserved to lose its majority.

Less clear is that Democrats deserved to win -- or that they would have done so absent Republican missteps. The Democrats won the House, and, as of this writing, at least narrowed the GOP majority in the Senate, but not because voters necessarily agreed with their program. How many voters, we wonder, could name even one of the Democrats' vaunted "Six for '06" legislative proposals? As they prepare to wield power, Democrats don't have capital from voters; at most, they enjoy a line of credit.

The right way to draw on that will be to resist the partisan temptation to act as the other side did, highhandedly and unilaterally. Instead, Democrats need to reach out to congressional Republicans as well as to Mr. Bush; the increased presence of conservatives in the Democratic ranks ought to help presumptive-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) forge bipartisan majorities. The Democrats should swiftly enact promised ethics and lobbying reforms that Republicans slighted. They should conduct vigorous oversight but not incessant, backward-looking investigations; subpoena power should be used sparingly. It was easy for Democrats to offer campaign promises of fiscal discipline; it will be harder -- given the raft of new spending they have proposed -- to live up to promises of pay-as-you-go budget constraints.

After six years of belligerent partisanship, the president would do well to change course dramatically in his final two years. In this, Mr. Bush has a good role model: Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who managed to work across party lines to achieve results. Granted, Democrats in Congress aren't the same as Democrats in Texas, but the new congressional Democrats share a common interest with the president in demonstrating an ability to overcome bickering to achieve results. There's opportunity on issues ranging from immigration and climate change to entitlement reform and education.

As for Iraq, the president and his party need to be mindful of the passionate voter discontent with the war. Some Democratic candidates advocated prompt withdrawal, which we believe would be perilous to U.S. and Iraqi interests, but many were pressing for adjustment, not the "cut and run" of Mr. Bush's caricature. The president's lofty campaign rhetoric is bearing decreasing resemblance to the grim reality in Iraq. With the election over, he needs to show more flexibility and deftness to address the deteriorating situation.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company