By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 13, 2006
Rarely has an election result been delivered with such force and clarity, and still left so many unanswered questions in its wake, as that of the 2006 midterm campaign. What happened is unmistakable. What it may portend is far less obvious, making the 2008 election, which already has begun, potentially the most important in a generation or more in shaping the nation's politics.
Democrats have been quick to claim that 2006 will be remembered as the end of a conservative era. No one doubts that the midterm election was a rejection of President Bush's policies in Iraq and of the Republicans' style of governance. But was it really a rejection of conservatism itself? It will take future elections to prove the Democrats' claim.
What the election was not, in the view of strategists in both parties, was a powerful affirmation of the Democratic Party, despite its takeover of the House and Senate. One post-election survey, conducted for the liberal groups Democracy Corps and the Campaign for America's Future, found that both Republicans and Democrats emerged from the contest with negative images.
"This is not an election where one party went down and the other party went up," said Stan Greenberg, whose firm conducted the survey on election night and the night after. "The story still has to be written on how this period becomes a period for Democratic dominance."
Tuesday's election left American politics in a remarkably fluid state. In just six years, the political discussion has moved from analyzing the reasons for the nation's 50-50 divide, to predictions that the Republicans were close to establishing a durable majority, to questions about whether Tuesday marked a pendulum swing back toward the Democrats.
After years of politics aimed at mobilizing and energizing the bases of their respective parties, Democrats and Republicans are again focused on the electorate's shifting center and its potential to change the balance of power in the country. On Tuesday, Republicans decisively lost independents and moderates, but it is not yet a given that those voters will stay with the Democrats. Which party claims that constituency in the future will depend on the answers to a series of questions that will shape the politics of the next two years.
Foremost among them is which party can gain the public's trust to keep Americans safe in a world of terrorism and rogue-state threats. Exit polls suggest Democrats made significant headway this year in reducing what has been a historic Republican advantage. Whether that is permanent or transitory is of central importance.
Equally important is the question of which party can adequately address the twin problems of keeping the United States competitive in a global economy and restoring the social contract that has helped provide economic security to workers and that has been shattered as a result of the corporate restructuring that globalization has brought about.
A third is which party can best navigate the thicket of social and cultural issues in a way that both preserves a sense of American values and accommodates the need for greater tolerance in a society that has become increasingly diverse.
Tuesday's election also suggests that the 2008 campaign will be fought on different geographic terrain. Throughout the decade, the political map of America has been relatively fixed, with Democratic blue states along the coasts and in parts of the upper Midwest, and most of the rest of the country a giant swath of Republican red.
That map now may be, if not obsolete, at least open to revision. Traditionally Republican Virginia increasingly looks like a state turning purple -- neither red or blue on election strategy maps. With former governor Mark R. Warner; his successor, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine; and James Webb's surprise victory over Sen. George Allen (R) last week, Democrats have demonstrated that Republicans no longer can take the state for granted.
As significant as the changes in Virginia is the transition underway in Colorado. Democrats scored important gains there on Tuesday, winning the governorship and a House seat and expanding their state legislative majorities. For all the focus on Ohio as the decisive presidential battleground over the last few years, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) would be president today if he had won both Virginia and Colorado.
The electoral map that has emerged from this election shows Republicans in control of the South, Democrats the Northeast. Democrats gained ground in the Midwest, but it remains a vitally important battleground.
Farther west, Rocky Mountain states are becoming the newest areas for competition between the parties. Democrats now control the governors' offices in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, and they have pushed Nevada to the front of their caucus-primary calendar in 2008 in the hope of spurring a shift in their direction there as well.
The Pacific Coast still looks like a Democratic bastion, although California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has shown that a less doctrinaire brand of Republican -- Sen. John McCain or Rudolph W. Giuliani, for example -- could put the nation's most populous state in play.
Republicans reject Democratic claims that Tuesday's results stopped conservatism's rise in its tracks. "This election was a rejection of Republicans," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. "It wasn't an acceptance of Democrats, especially since they provided no recognizable alternative agenda."
Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said the party -- as distinct from its core philosophy -- took a beating, but he called it a setback from which the party could emerge much healthier. "Since the ascendancy began, there have been a number of years when we've had setback elections: 1976, 1986, 1992," he said, referring to the rise of conservatism. "We have been stronger in the end because we learned from them."
That was a way of warning Republicans not to dismiss last week's results as an aberration. "If we dismiss this, we give Democrats a huge opportunity," he said. "We need to learn from this and do better."
Simon Rosenberg, who heads the Democratic group NDN, saw the election in fundamentally different terms -- as a marker in which the public rejected conservatism as an alternative governing philosophy to what Democrats had offered in the past. Still, he was not prepared to call it the arrival of a new era of Democratic dominance.
"We're now back at a much more even playing field," he said at a post-election review of the results. "We're entering a whole new period in American history, where neither party or ideology has an advantage."
The midterms will be remembered as a referendum on the Iraq election, and the voters' verdict will push the White House and the Democrats toward agreement on potentially significant changes. Both parties now have an incentive to resolve their differences -- Republicans to remove the single biggest reason for their losses on Tuesday, Democrats to avoid what happened to them during the Vietnam era, when they bore the blame for the unsatisfying way an unpopular war was ended.
The competition for the center of the electorate ultimately will be fought and won in the general election in 2008. But before either party gets to that, they will have to resolve internal differences on Iraq, terrorism, health care, entitlement reform, taxes, trade and a cluster of social issues.
Both the legislative priorities set out by the president and leaders in the 110th Congress and the upcoming presidential primaries will serve as forums for settling some of these questions. That makes the 2008 election more than a contest of big personalities, even though a possible race between Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and McCain (R-Ariz.) already has the cable talk shows in a lather.
Democrats face internal debates over just how populist the party's economic message should be, and on the war in Iraq. Many elected officials favor a reduction in troops but no fixed timeline. But Eli Pariser, who heads the MoveOn.org political action committee, said many Democratic voters want an explicit timeline. "People weren't just vaguely wanting a change on Iraq," he told a post-election conference. "They wanted something specific."
William A. Galston of the Brookings Institution, who served as domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, said Democrats were brought back to power because of protest against Republicans, and now they must show they can govern. "The American people are prepared to watch and listen," he said. "But I think they will be evaluating the performance of the new Democratic majority very carefully."
Republicans must resolve their own questions: Can they reconstitute conservatism to make it attractive once again beyond the party's base? GOP strategist Mary Matalin said the Reaganite model of low taxes, smaller government and strong defense can again serve the party well, if it is updated. "It needs to put some Britney Spears clothes on it," she said.
Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) said the party should ignore moderates' calls to spend money to attract new groups of voters. But the GOP has seen erosion among one group that it has spent years wooing -- Hispanics, who defected apparently over the party's tough stand on illegal immigration, which included passage of legislation for a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"I am concerned about where we stand with Hispanic voters," Mehlman said. "The day we become just the party of the wall, not only won't we secure the borders, but we will substantially limit the growth of the party."
The Democrats' victories last week ended a dozen years of Republican rule in Congress and dealt a significant blow to Bush's presidency. The next two years will answer which party best learned the lessons of what the voters were saying.
Staff writer Jim VandeHei contributed to this report.