With Republicans poised to control the government, President Bush said during his victory news conference yesterday that he wants "members of both political parties to come together to get things done for the American people."
"I've talked to leaders of both parties and assured them I want to work with them," Bush said.
That may be difficult, given how Democrats contend he has treated them during the first half of his term. Democratic leaders said that since Bush took office, and even after Democrats gained control of the Senate last year, he has rarely consulted them. They said they have learned about many of his plans -- even ones that depend on their cooperation -- from news reports.
Democrats were particularly incensed yesterday about Bush's claim Wednesday that Republican candidates had succeeded because of their clean campaigns. "Their accent was on the positive," Bush told his top aides, gathered in front of the Oval Office fireplace. "If you want to succeed in American politics, change the tone."
Bush usually stays above the fray, but some of his hand-picked candidates ran tough negative campaigns. Some used images of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden to try to tar Democrats as soft on national security. Bush occasionally joined in the attack.
The day before the election, Bush repeated a statement that had caused Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) to issue a futile demand for an apology when the president first said it in October. Complaining in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, about his stalled plan for a Department of Homeland Security, Bush said the Senate is "more interested in special interests, which dominate the dialogue in Washington, D.C., than they are in protecting the American people."
Since taking office, Bush has often asserted progress on his campaign pledge to "change the tone in Washington." Yesterday, some Democratic strategists said they see a disconnect between that rhetoric and the Republican campaigns. They said it could cause problems for Bush as he tries to work with Democrats in two chambers that will remain closely divided.
"It's one thing to win; it's another thing to whitewash the election," said Mandy Grunwald, Democratic media consultant in several marquee Senate races. "They ran tough, nasty campaigns, and they won, in most cases, because they were negative and effectively negative. He's making a ridiculous assertion."
"We've heard this song from Bush before," said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who worked on some of the most closely contested Senate races. "Democrats are going to be more skeptical this time."
Bush's candidates were as rough as anyone in a tight race. Before the death of Sen. Paul D. Wellstone, GOP candidate Norm Coleman referred to Minnesota's two senators as "a joke and a shadow."
"I run against a guy who quite often I think is just the lowest common denominator," Coleman, who won his race, said in July.
Rep. C. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) used an ad featuring videotape of Osama bin Laden in his successful campaign to unseat Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), who lost both legs and his right arm in a grenade explosion while serving as an Army captain in Vietnam.
Some Democrats said both parties were to blame for the tone of the campaign. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who is planning a presidential campaign, said both parties assaulted voters this fall with "appeals to our worst instincts," hurting voter turnout. "No one should ever allow the patriotism of a war hero like Max Cleland to be questioned in such a calculated and devastating way as it was these last few weeks," Kerry said.
Bush's aides said the president was not aware of all the ads and exchanges in every race but was correct that Republicans had offered a positive vision. Matthew Dowd, Bush's campaign pollster and now senior adviser to the Republican National Committee, said Bush's candidates ran by saying they supported his agenda, while Democrats said they were against it but rarely offered their own ideas.
"The public just wants to get something done and to have honest debates over policy, not to have their leaders just say 'no' to everything," Dowd said. "Obstructionism became part of their message."
Officials throughout the administration said the White House has instructed them to emphasize bipartisanship in the days ahead. Bush used his news conference to urge Democrats to vote for a homeland security department, praising the members of both parties who authorized him to use force against Iraq.
"We must bring the same spirit of bipartisan cooperation to the urgent task of protecting our country from the ongoing threat of terrorist attack," Bush said.
That certainly is not the mood among many Republicans in Washington, who are savoring an election that had appeared to be close.
"It's W's world and everybody else is living in it," an administration aide said, using the president's campaign nickname. "This will change the calculation of anybody will have to make before crossing George Bush."