A Loss's Silver Lining
At least Republicans now know where the "Bridge to Nowhere" leads: to the political wilderness. But there are three reasons for conservatives to temper their despondency.
First, they were punished not for pursuing but for forgetting conservatism. Second, they admire market rationality, and the political market has worked. Third, on various important fronts, conservatism continued its advance Tuesday.
Of course the election-turning issue was not that $223 million bridge in Alaska or even the vice of which it is emblematic -- incontinent spending by a Republican-controlled Congress trying to purchase permanent power. Crass spending (the farm and highway bills, the nearly eightfold increase in the number of earmarks since 1994) and other pandering (e.g., the Terri Schiavo intervention) have intensified as Republicans' memories of why they originally sought power have faded.
But Republicans sank beneath the weight of Iraq, the lesson of which is patent: Wars of choice should be won swiftly rather than lost protractedly. On election eve the president, perhaps thinking one should not tinker with success, promised that his secretary of defense would remain. That promise perished yesterday as a result of Tuesday's repudiation of Republican stewardship, which, although emphatic, was not inordinate, considering the offense that provoked it -- war leadership even worse than during the War of 1812.
Tuesday's House result -- the end of 12 years of Republican control -- was normal; the reason for it was unprecedented. The Democrats' 40 years of control of the House before 1994 was aberrant: In the 140 years since 1866, the first post-Civil War election, party control of the House has now changed 15 times -- an average of once every 9.3 years. But never before has a midterm election so severely repudiated a president for a single policy.
The Iraq war, like the Alaska bridge, pungently proclaims how Republicans earned their rebuke. They are guilty of apostasy from conservative principles at home (frugality, limited government) and embrace of anti-conservative principles abroad (nation-building grandiosity pursued incompetently).
About $2.6 billion was spent on the 468 House and Senate races. (Scandalized? Don't be. Americans spend that much on chocolate every two months .) Although Republicans had more money, its effectiveness was blunted because Democrats at last practiced what they incessantly preach to others -- diversity. Diversity of thought, no less: Some of their winners even respect the Second Amendment.
Free markets, including political markets, equilibrate, producing supplies to meet demands. The Democratic Party, a slow learner but educable, has dropped the subject of gun control and welcomed candidates opposed to parts or even all of the abortion rights agenda. This vindicates the candidate recruitment by Rep. Rahm Emanuel and Sen. Chuck Schumer, chairmen of the Democratic House and Senate campaign committees, respectively. Karl Rove fancies himself a second iteration of Mark Hanna, architect of the Republican ascendancy secured by William McKinley's 1896 election. In Emanuel, Democrats may have found another Jim Farley, the political mechanic who kept FDR's potentially discordant coalition running smoothly through the 1930s.
Making the Democratic House majority run smoothly will require delicacy. The six elections beginning with 1994 produced Republican majorities averaging just 10 seats. The six elections before 1994 produced Democratic majorities averaging 44. Nancy Pelosi's majority will be less than half that. The most left-wing speaker in U.S. history will return to being minority leader in 2009 unless she eschews an agenda that cannot be enacted without requiring the many Democrats elected from Republican-leaning districts to jeopardize their seats.
This year Democrats tacitly accepted much of the country's rightward movement over the past quarter-century. They did not call for restoring the 70 percent marginal tax rates that Ronald Reagan repealed. And although Pelosi and 15 of the 21 likely chairmen of committees in the coming Congress voted against the 1996 welfare reform, which has helped reduce welfare rolls by roughly 60 percent, Democrats this year did not talk about repealing it.
The property rights movement gained ground Tuesday as voters in nine states passed measures to restrict governments from exercising eminent domain in order to enlarge their tax revenue. In Michigan, opponents of racial preferences in public hiring, education and contracting easily passed their referendum, 58 to 42 percent, in spite of being outspent more than three to one. In Minnesota -- the only state Democrats have carried in each of the past eight presidential elections, but one that is becoming a swing state -- Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty was reelected. And, come January, the number of Republicans in the House (at least 200) will still be larger than the largest number during the Reagan years (192 in 1981-83).
The country remains receptive to conservatism. That doctrine -- were it to become constraining on, rather than merely avowed by, congressional Republicans -- can be their bridge back from the wilderness.