Tuesday's electoral earthquake triggered an equally seismic reaction in Washington yesterday, one that signaled more clearly than ever that a politically humbled President Bush now agrees with a resurgent Democratic Party on the need for a change of course in Iraq. What was not clear was whether the two sides are genuinely prepared to work together to produce one.
In the wake of an election that swept Republicans from power in the House and left them on the brink of surrendering their Senate majority as well, both parties have greater incentives to reach accommodation than at any time since Bush was elected in 2000. Iraq will provide the critical test of whether either can overcome the ingrained habits and bad blood of six years of partisan warfare that have often left the Capitol in gridlock.
The president took the most dramatic step yesterday in acknowledging how much the landscape has changed. At a midday news conference he announced that he had accepted the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who has come to symbolize the administration's apparent unwillingness to change a policy that has failed to bring order to Iraq and that has lost popular support at home. Bush said it is time for "a fresh perspective" on the war.
"I recognize that many Americans voted last night to register their displeasure with the lack of progress being made there," he said. "Yet I also believe that most Americans and leaders here in Washington from both political parties understand we cannot accept defeat."
If Bush was willing to dismiss Rumsfeld, which the president said only a week ago that he had no intention of doing, it was in part because he and his party have so much at risk. Tuesday's elections proved to be a reaction not only against the war and the corruption scandals that have scarred Congress but also against the kind of base-driven politics that Bush used in 2004 to win a second term.
That model has often elevated policies and tactics designed to energize conservative activists over an appeal to what many GOP strategists saw as a shrinking middle of the electorate. But on Tuesday, the center struck back, voting decisively for Democratic candidates in House races.
‘New era of cooperation’
The president responded with a renewed call for bipartisan cooperation, saying leaders on both sides should resist the temptation to divide the country into red and blue. "By putting this election and partisanship behind us, we can launch a new era of cooperation and make these next two years productive ones for the American people," he said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in line to become the nation's first female speaker in January, also spoke to what is now widely seen among leaders in both parties as a rejection of partisan polarization.
"The American people spoke out for a return to civility to the Capitol in Washington and how Congress conducts its work," she said in her first news conference after the election. "And Democrats pledge civility and bipartisanship in the conduct of the work here, and we pledge partnerships with the Republicans in Congress and the president, not partisanship."
Bush and Pelosi will meet today to try to begin to forge a relationship that could be critical to both their parties' futures and that will color the atmosphere as the 2008 campaigns take shape.
There are any number of areas where the two sides might begin to try to work together. Immigration policy is one, an area where the president was more at odds with his own party than with some Democrats.
But Iraq will provide the acid test. On that issue, there are significant differences yet to be bridged. Many Democrats favor a shift that would begin to draw down U.S. troop levels. But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has been critical of Rumsfeld and the mistakes made by the administration in prosecuting the war, said again yesterday that he favors sending in more troops to try once and for all to suppress the sectarian violence.
William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and an early advocate of the war, said Bush was wise to let Rumsfeld go, but he cautioned against reading into the decision any move by Bush to begin a withdrawal of U.S. forces. He said a hawkish shift in policy is just as likely as one that calls for the United States to begin to get out.
For there to be any chance at rebuilding public support, Kristol said, "Rumsfeld had to go. . . . For the sake of the war, he had to go. I don't interpret his going as a step toward withdrawal or redeployment," and he does not foresee Bush "looking for a way out."
Democrats said they expect to find many Republican allies on Capitol Hill in pushing Bush closer to their views.
"I know it sounds trite, but elections have profound consequence," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.). He said the president "would be absolutely not tone deaf but stone deaf" to ignore the meaning of Tuesday's elections, adding that Republicans "are not going to allow this president" to stick with the current policy.
Democrats have an agenda of issues other than the war that they will push at the beginning of the new Congress. The list includes raising the minimum wage, providing college-tuition assistance, letting the government negotiate with drug companies over prices for Medicare patients, and implementing the recommendations of the Sept. 11, 2001, commission.
But they recognize, as does the White House, that all those proposals pale in comparison to finding a solution to Iraq. Pelosi said yesterday that the election demonstrated the public's desire for a new direction, but she and other party leaders have been circumspect about exactly what that might entail, other than to begin withdrawing U.S. troops at some point.
Many of the party's newly elected House members campaigned on explicit platforms of withdrawing U.S. forces. Party leaders and prospective Democratic presidential candidates, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), will be under growing pressure to clarify their and the party's position in coming months.
Many Democrats now look to the Iraq commission chaired by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) to find a solution that will satisfy both president and Democrats. Robert M. Gates, named yesterday as the next defense secretary, sits on that commission.
William A. Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar who served in the Clinton administration, said the experience of the Vietnam War should give Democrats a powerful incentive to cooperate with Republicans to develop a new policy. "This is a matter of great consequence," he said.
In the early 1970s, he said, Democrats ended up blamed for "ending an unpopular war in the wrong way. We paid a price for decades, and to some extent we're struggling against that legacy. The very worst thing we could do is repeat that mistake."