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Electoral calamity forces Bush to play defense

Filibuster and veto.  Those are the words that seem likely to define the final two years of George W. Bush’s presidency now that Democrats have taken control of the House of Representatives and perhaps of the Senate as well.
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NEW YORK — Filibuster and veto.

Those are the words that may well define the final two years of George W. Bush’s presidency now that Democrats have taken control of the House of Representatives and perhaps of the Senate as well — with the fate of GOP senators in Virginia and Montana still in doubt as of 9 a.m. Eastern time Wednesday.

  • Veto: Bush may well be presented with legislation he fundamentally opposes. Like Bill Clinton in 1995, faced by a GOP Congress, Bush has a chance to win by playing defense against a Democratic Congress.

After the Republicans took over Congress in 1994, Clinton vetoed 37 bills with only two of his vetoes over-ridden.

Clinton killed Republican legislation to open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, ban partial-birth abortion and eliminate the estate tax.

One could argue that those vetoes were the most significant things Clinton did as president after the GOP era began in 1995.

  • Filibuster: there are indications that, emboldened by his new members, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid may revert to his 2002-2003 strategy of blocking votes on Bush nominees to the federal bench by using threat of extended debate, the filibuster.

If Reid gets his majority, he won’t need to filibuster; the Democrats can bottle up Bush nominees in the Judiciary Committee or perhaps defeat them outright on floor votes.

Bush legacy in jeopardy
Apart from Iraq, Bush’s most lasting legacy, his impact on the federal judiciary is in jeopardy as a result of Tuesday’s outcome.

Bush’s great successes — getting Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts on the high court — may now be impossible to repeat.

Even as votes were still being counted in some races Wednesday morning, the Supreme Court was set to hear oral arguments in the most important abortion case in several years: a test of the constitutionality of the law Bush signed to ban the procedure known as partial-birth abortion.

While voters in seven states enacted measures Tuesday to outlaw gay marriages, Tuesday's outcome reduced the possibility of Bush appointing to the high court a staunch conservative who’d oppose deeming same-sex marriage a constitutional right. Bush simply may not have the votes anymore.

And it was largely Bush’s choice on Iraq that led to the Republican electoral calamity.

Bush’s effort to remake Iraq in the image and likeness of a Western democracy was always a risky gamble.

In electoral terms, the gamble seemed good in the 2002 elections when the GOP picked up eight seats in the House, but it went bust on Tuesday night.

In electing enough members to give the Democrats control of the House, and giving Democrats a net gain of at least three Senate seats the electorate seemed to be saying “re-making Iraq isn’t what we signed on for back in 2002.”

Voters sour on Iraq project
In Rhode Island, for example, Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee repeatedly reminded voters that he voted against the Iraq war resolution in 2002 — which is more than Sens. Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Reid himself could say.

Yet, Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse argued that re-electing Chafee would allow the GOP to keep its Senate majority and would empower Bush.

Nearly three out of four of the Rhode Island voters interviewed in the exit poll disapproved of the Iraq project, and Whitehouse won 65 percent of those voters and won the election.

The Democrats used a clever strategy: becoming the generic “anti-Iraq war” party and not offering voters specific alternatives to Bush’s Iraq venture.

Last Friday as Democratic House candidate Joe Sestak campaigned in Manoa, Pa., I asked him how soon the U.S. troops would be brought home from Iraq if there were a Democratic-controlled House.

“Well, the ultimate decision is made properly by the commander-in-chief, the president of the United States,” Sestak said. “Those like me who believe it should be done, it is at least by the end of next year.”

But Sestak, a political novice who defeated Rep. Curt Weldon Tuesday night, said he would not vote for a measure proposed by his new colleague, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., to force Bush to bring the troops home by cutting funding for the Iraq deployment.

“Not initially, absolutely not,” Sestak said. “I think the president needs the opportunity to hear the voice of this nation. The public is leading the leadership right now. We need to continue the funding for the safety of our troops above all else.”

Ultimately, Democrats argue, Bush of his own volition will withdraw the troops, without Democrats going to the trouble of voting to cut off the funding.

“I have no doubt that with both houses of Congress held by those members who represent a chance of strategy in Iraq, the president will ultimately listen,” Sestak said.

Lieberman crushes Lamont
Yet Sen. Joe Lieberman, who lost the Democratic primary in August to neophyte Ned Lamont, proved the anomaly in this year of anti-Iraq war voting.

Lieberman declared in June, “The consequences of an American retreat and defeat (in Iraq) would be terrible for the safety and security of the American people.”

Despite this, or because of it, voters stood by Lieberman and rejected Lamont.

The extent of the Democratic victory on Tuesday night raises the question of whether the Bush era is now over.

Even though Bush will serve until January 2009, many Democrats saw the 2006 election as their chance finally to punish the president.

On election eve, one Democratic Senate campaign worker said he looked forward to Bush being charged with crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. “He won’t be able to leave the United States,” he said with relish.

Some Democrats see a decisive turning of the tide on social issues: On Saturday afternoon, foreseeing a Democratic House majority, Democratic House candidate Lois Murphy asked a rally in Norristown, Pa., “Are you ready for a Congress that protects and respects a woman’s right to choose?”

Murphy apparently lost Tuesday, defeated by Rep. Jim Gerlach.

What's on the abortion rights agenda?
It will be interesting to see whether new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi offers any abortion-rights legislation and how she knits together the pro-abortion rights members with the newly elected Democratic House anti-abortion members such as Brad Ellsworth of Indiana and Heath Shuler of North Carolina. 

One glaring pattern in Tuesday’s outcome was increased regional polarization: Tuesday was a disaster for eco-friendly, socially libertarian Republicans from the Northeast.

For example, in New Hampshire, Republican Rep. Charlie Bass, who split from most Republicans by voting against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, lost to Democrat Paul Hodes.

The Democrat defeated Bass by running against Bush: “We’re going to ask New Hampshire voters a pretty basic question: Have you had enough of an imperial president and an ineffective, rubber-stamp Congress who just won’t face the real issues that are facing this country?”

But Republican centrists ran into trouble elsewhere as well. In Iowa, Rep. Jim Leach, seeking to return to Congress for a 16th term, fell to Democrat David Loebsack in a tight race.

The Republicans met with trouble in the fast-growing regions of exurbia where Bush had done well in 2004. For example, in Chester County, Pennsylvania, a quintessential exurban place, Bush got 52 percent of the vote in 2004, but Santorum was able to muster only 44 percent on Tuesday.

In another model exurban county, Anoka County, Minnesota, Bush won 53 percent in 2004, but GOP Senate candidate Mark Kennedy got a meager 41 percent Tuesday.

A problem for Democrats in 2008: keeping Republican-leaning seats soon to be held by newly elected Democrats.

In Pennsylvania’s 10th congressional district, Democrat Chris Carney defeated scandal-tarred Rep. Don Sherwood who paid his ex-mistress $500,000 in an apparent bid to keep her quiet until after Election Day.

But Bush carried this district with 60 percent in 2004, 13 points better than Sherwood did on Tuesday. It’s hard to imagine that the district has undergone such a radical and permanent personality change.