Facing Up to Reality
Never was a political wipeout better advertised in advance than the one that hit the Republican Party on Tuesday and cost Don Rumsfeld his job. From the first of my political soundings in the Midwest in early spring, it was clear that the public's frustration with the war in Iraq, the inept performance of the Bush administration after Hurricane Katrina, and the stunning partisanship and tawdriness of the Republican Congress was reaching explosive levels.
When Congress quit work without addressing immigration, energy prices or health-care inflation in any serious way, the majority Republicans were clearly asking for trouble. And the scandals that kept erupting just added to the public disgust.
A few days before the election, Bernadette Budde, political director of BIPAC, the Republican-friendly Business Industry Political Action Committee, was quoted here as warning of the imminence of what she correctly predicted would be "an earthquake."
The only people who seemed oblivious to the warning signs were President Bush and his political adviser, Karl Rove. Against all evidence, including the warnings of other Republicans, they kept insisting that Republicans would hold the House and Senate. Bush said at his news conference yesterday, "I knew we were going to lose seats," but he acknowledged he was shocked that the twin themes he kept pushing -- taxes and security -- didn't save the GOP from "a thumping."
The Republican Party paid a heavy price for Bush and Rove's obduracy -- and for the miserable performance of the GOP congressional leadership. The vaunted Republican "base," on which the White House has relied to support the president's agenda, splintered on Election Day. In exit polls, one-fifth of self-described Republicans and three out of 10 white evangelicals or "born-again" Christians said they voted Democratic for Congress.
Meanwhile, independents and moderates went Democratic by margins of 18 and 23 points, respectively. Democrats broadened their coalition, winning the cities and splitting even in suburbs and rural areas, while capturing majorities in all age groups and every income level up to $100,000 a year. That same range is reflected in the expanded Democratic caucuses in the House and Senate, with notable victories from New Hampshire to Arizona.
So Bush was simply acknowledging reality when he reversed himself and bade farewell to his controversial Pentagon chief. He said he had made the decision in the final hours before Election Day, when he still believed he'd have a Republican Congress. In reality it was announced less than half an hour after speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi had said at her own news conference that firing Rumsfeld would be the clearest way for Bush to signal that the election constituted a call for a new policy in Iraq.
Pelosi's performance at her debut as leader of a congressional majority was pitch-perfect, calm, confident and blessedly free of the screeching tone of some of her stump speeches. She is leading a formidable political force in this revived Democratic Party. Bush has every reason to treat her with respect -- and a degree of deference. He is right in thinking that they could well find common ground on immigration, education and perhaps even entitlements if they tried. But the acid test will be his willingness to open a genuine dialogue on Iraq.
Pelosi, who spent October out campaigning, showed a clearer grasp of the public mood than did Bush. He was still halfway between avowing a new open-minded readiness to listen and learn and his more familiar insistence on living in a world of moral absolutes. Thus the conflict between his welcoming fresh ideas on Iraq and insisting single-mindedly that "victory" is the only acceptable outcome for the military intervention that most of the voting public now judges a mistake.
The Democrats will offer Bush alternatives for Iraq and so, presumably, will the Baker-Hamilton commission when it meets with him next week and issues its report in December. James A. Baker III and Lee Hamilton and their colleagues are perfectly positioned to help break the deadlock on that policy -- if Bush is looking for an out.
The question is whether a president who couldn't recognize the reality of an approaching political landslide is any more discerning about spotting a policy and political disaster in the making in a far-off land.
The answer is not at all clear.