Tuesday’s elections were a rout, a massacre, a bloody, appalling debacle for Republicans.
And voters, the majority of whom according to exit polls were deeply troubled by President Bush’s entanglement in Iraq, seemed to get quick action: Bush announced just 11 hours after the polls closed that Donald Rumsfeld was resigning as defense secretary.
There’s no precise parallel in the history of changing a defense secretary in wartime.
In September 1950 President Harry Truman ousted Defense Secretary Louis Johnson, after military reversals in the Korean War which had begun in June. The firing took place two months before the 1950 elections in which Truman's Democratic party lost 28 House seats.
In December 1993 President Clinton ousted Defense Secretary Les Aspin after the "Black Hawk Down" losses in Somalia.
Bush is making his change the very day after an election calamity; when President Lyndon Johnson ousted Defense Secretary Robert McNamara on Nov. 29, 1967, it was a year after Johnson’s party suffered serious losses in the 1966 midterm elections.
LBJ was eyeing the 1968 presidential election; and only decided months after sacking McNamara that he’d not run in 1968.
Bush can’t run again; he can only hope to manage the Iraq operation to some semblance of success that won’t hurt his party’s presidential nominee in 2008.
The front-runner for that nomination, Sen. John McCain, has been an articulate supporter of the U.S. commitment to bring stability to Iraq, as well as a fierce critic of Rumsfeld’s conduct of the war. McCain said shortly before the election that 20,000 more troops were needed in Iraq.
Spectacular, yes, but substantive?
Bush’s replacement of Rumsfeld is a spectacular personnel change which might marginally improve his relations with House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi and the newly emboldened Democrats.
It does remove a man Democrats (and some Republicans) regarded as an noisome irritant, since as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Wednesday, Rumsfeld was notorious among his adversaries for being “stubborn and arrogant. He did not listen. He did not change course when it was apparent that a new path was needed.”
But a “new path,” a substantial change in policy has yet to be seen – and may not be possible, given Bush’s unchanged commitment to victory in Iraq.
Bush said at his Tuesday press briefing: “I am making a change at the secretary of defense to bring a fresh perspective as to how to achieve something I think most Americans want, which is a victory….”
He said later at the press briefing, “It’s very important that people understand the consequences of failure….. We’re not going to fail; we’re not going to leave before the job is done.”
He added that if the Democrats’ goal is “success, then we can work together.”
There remains the impasse: even conservative Republicans such as Rep. Gil Gutknecht, R- Minn. who lost his seat Tuesday partly due to the war, acknowledge that Americans do not have the skills or inclination to be neo-colonial custodians of a bitterly ethnically divided place such as Iraq.
Lacking custodial skills
Gutknecht noted as he campaigned in the final days before the election in Minnesota that American soldiers, although devoted and brave, “don’t speak the (Arabic) language and they don’t understand the culture. So there are limits as to what our soldiers can do in policing the streets.”
But now the Democratic majority in the House and perhaps in the Senate will be participants, if not partners, in the post-Rumsfeld impasse: on election eve, I asked the man who was about to win the Senate seat in Pennsylvania, Democrat Bob Casey, Jr. whether a Casey victory would mean a definite answer for the mother or father who wonders when their son stationed in Iraq will be coming home.
“I don’t think there is an answer” to that question, Casey replied. “Anyone who asserts there is a definitive answer is probably not telling the truth.”
But he said a Democratic Senate would hold Bush to account: “finding out how we were lied to in the lead-up to this war” and insisting that Bush issue benchmarks “for making sure we can be successful in Iraq and stabilize that county.”
Note: Casey, like Bush, believes success is still feasible in Iraq.
In the Pennsylvania race, exit poll interviews revealed that 61 percent of voters disapproved of the Iraq operation; and Casey won 85 percent of those voters as he went on to crush Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, who in the final weeks of the campaign argued that Casey and the Democrats would “abandon the Iraqi people to Iranian and Syrian slaughter and domination.”
As another case study of how the Iraq issue benefited the Democrats, consider the Virginia Senate race, in which Sen. George Allen faced Democrat Jim Webb, a war critic.
Exit poll interviews suggested that 42 percent of the Virginia electorate saw the Iraq war as “extremely important” in determining their vote. Webb won 58 percent of those people.
Webb has claimed victory in that race, although Republicans will seek a recount.
GOP House massacre
Iraq certainly contributed to a mood of impatience and to Democratic victories in House races as well.
Even Rep. Jim Leach R- Iowa, a centrist Republican who voted against the war in 2002, went down to defeat.
If, as currently projected, the Republicans hold only 201 seats in the new House of Representatives, it will amount to a loss of 31 seats, the largest surrender of House seats since the Democrats saw 52 washed away from them in 1994.
Tuesday’s loss ranks with the Republican loss in the recession year of 1982 (31 seats lost, but the GOP was in the minority even before that election) and the Democratic loss in the Vietnam War year of 1966 (a loss of 47 seats, but the Democrats still remained the majority party).
Tuesday’s results made the Republicans more of a regionalized enclave party: strong in the South and Mountain West, but bleeding profusely and faint of pulse in the Northeast:
- The GOP lost four House seats in Pennsylvania.
- The Republicans lost three in Connecticut and both seats in New Hampshire.
- Three GOP seats in New York went down the drain.
Just as worrisome or perhaps more so for GOP strategists was the loss of parts of rural America: in Gutknecht’s’ largely rural First Congressional District in Minnesota’s, for example, liberal Democrat Tim Walz defeated Gutknecht by 15,000 votes — this in a district that Gutknecht carried two years ago by 78,000.
Walz criticized the war and called for negotiations with Egypt and Jordan to persuade their governments to send peace-keeping troops to Iraq.