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Seven lessons from the midterm elections

The political lessons learned from this year's fateful Election Day are still fresh. And in a city stuck in a permanent state of campaigning, the party that best understands those lessons will be the most prepared for 2008.  By , National Journal
/ Source: National Journal

Thirty years ago, Rep. Morris Udall conceded a campaign defeat with a memorable quip: "The voters have spoken ... the bastards." The day after the 2006 midterms, President Bush was careful to avoid even a hint of Udall's frustration.

George W. Bush wasn't on the ballot Tuesday, but he had acted like he was. So had Democratic candidates, who tied Bush -- or a caricature of him -- around the neck of virtually every GOP candidate in America. Ultimately, voters accepted this logic, and with the president's approval rating below 40 percent, the inevitable happened.

"Americans voted with their hearts," said populist John Edwards, a former North Carolina senator. Or maybe with their heads, according to moderate Democrat Al From, who decreed this week's results "a victory for the vital center of American politics over the extremes." Meanwhile, on the most liberal wing of the Democratic coalition, leaders of the grassroots organization discerned a different message, namely, "Voters to Bush: Get out of Iraq."

Among Republicans, there was little consensus, either.

Announcing his candidacy to lead House Republicans, Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., asserted that Republicans had abandoned the philosophy that gave them a congressional majority 12 years ago. "The American people did not quit on the Contract With America, we did," he wrote to colleagues while attacking the GOP's addiction to deficit spending and pork-barrel politics.

GOP moderates countered that the results demonstrated the limits of Bush adviser Karl Rove's vaunted "base" strategy -- and hoped that Tuesday's results would produce a more conciliatory president. "There will be a need for consultation, compromise, and, ultimately, accommodation," said Kenneth Duberstein, President Reagan's former chief of staff. "Bush will realize that compromise is not a four-letter word."

At his own press conference, Bush stated that he'd gotten this message. So had the woman whom Bush called "speaker-elect" in a congratulatory phone call. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., returned the favor, telling the president, "Your success is our success."

For public consumption, at least, both sides thus bowed to the almighty voters' demands for cooperation from their now-divided government. But there were myriad other lessons, and in a city on permanent campaign footing, the party that truly understands them will be best prepared for 2008.

Every Vote Counts
Bush tempered his admission that Republicans suffered "a thumping" with the observation that it was a close election. This seems a contradiction, but it wasn't. Virginia's Senate results favored Democrat Jim Webb by slightly more than 7,000 votes out of 2.4 million cast. Republican Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana went down to defeat by 2,847 votes. Those two races gave Senate control to the Democrats.

GOP pollster Ed Goeas noted this week that 22 of the lost Republican House seats were decided by fewer than 2 percentage points. "And of those, 18 were won by fewer than 5,000 votes," he said. "In other words, you can basically go back and say that we lost control of Congress by less than 50,000 votes."

The narrow margins underscored the value of the Democrats' and affiliated groups' impressive "ground war" -- they spent nearly $150 million on get-out-the-vote efforts, three times what a senior Republican official said his party spent. The voting patterns made it clear that the United States is not divided into red and blue states, or even, strictly speaking, red and blue counties, but red and blue people -- with enough "purple" people out there to swing any close election. Six Republican House members lost to candidates they had previously defeated, proof that the demise of swing voters had been greatly exaggerated.

Scandals Kill
Democrats went into the midterms needing to gain only 15 seats, but various Republicans made their job easier. Rep. Mark Foley of Florida made advances on congressional pages. Rep. John Sweeney of New York showed up inebriated at a college fraternity party and also got into a fracas with his wife -- who called the police. Four days before the election, Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio was: (a) a convicted felon; and (b) still serving as a Republican congressman. Pennsylvania had one GOP House member accused of choking his mistress and another accused of trading political influence for lobbying contracts for his daughter. In Texas, indicted Rep. Tom DeLay resigned his seat too late for Republicans to replace him on the ballot. The GOP lost all of those seats. Moreover, they set a tone.

"Our voters stopped thinking of us as the party of principle," Rep. John Boehner said on Wednesday in a letter to his GOP colleagues. Ed Kutler, a former aide to Newt Gingrich, said the scandal-tainted Republicans reminded voters that their party had given only lip service to a legislative solution. "Everyone knew that ethics reforms were needed and on the agenda for a couple of years," Kutler said. "And they were never acted on."

Two years ago, Republican Rep. Richard Pombo carried California's 11th Congressional District against Democrat Jerry McNerney by 61 percent to 39 percent. Since then, as the Republican who took more Jack Abramoff money than any other California member, Pombo has been beset by ethics allegations. On Tuesday, Pombo lost to McNerney, 53 percent to 47 percent, despite outspending him by more than 2-to-1. This is a swing of 28 points, a stunning number that underscores the limits of gerrymandering.

Meet The new media, same as the old
"George Allen would be winning this race if it wasn't for the blogs, for YouTube," conservative commentator Bill Kristol said on Election Night. The real story might be how quickly the mainstream media and the political parties, particularly the Democrats, embraced the anything-goes ethic of the blogosphere -- just as an earlier generation of Republicans embraced the radical fringe of conservative talk radio. In doing so, the political professionals acknowledged a simple fact of American public life, particularly during wartime: Anger is a better motivator than affection.

Virginia's Sen. Allen wasn't vexed only by his inexplicable "macaca" slur. As a kind of follow-up, he was asked by a television reporter whether "your forebears include Jews" -- as if this were something bad. Next, the liberal blogs produced a 30-year-old court clerk's log that might have cited a misdemeanor arrest warrant for Allen -- or might have been a simple notation that he'd missed traffic court. One Democrat took this tidbit and wrote a letter to the Virginia Bar Association speculating that Allen may have committed "assault or battery." The author wasn't an anonymous blogger. He was the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, writing under the names of Sens. Charles Schumer of New York and Harry Reid of Nevada.

Competence matters
Control of Congress and the White House did not ensure a smooth operation. It may have impaired the GOP's ability to govern.

"I think the first lesson is that the tight synthesis of the Hill and the administration has its benefits -- and has its drawbacks," said Eric Ueland, chief of staff to outgoing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Ueland believes that one of those drawbacks is having too much of the mojo coming from the White House.

"These [members] came to town and had a mandate to push down taxes and get the education house in order," he said. "They fulfilled that. And then 9/11 occurred, and the operating governing thesis has been run straight from the top. Congress has been identified to such a large extent with the president's policies."

After his re-election, Bush spent much of 2005 pushing his ill-fated Social Security reform while the situation in Iraq deteriorated. The administration's response to Hurricane Katrina also hurt the GOP's image. From the White House perspective, congressional Republicans sabotaged themselves by invoking illegal immigration as a dire national crisis, then failing to pass Bush's legislative solution.

"We didn't pass immigration reform," concurred Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "We could have and should have." John Weaver, a senior McCain strategist, characterized the Republicans' defeat as "a rejection of our inability to govern."

This is the lesson that Pelosi took back to her caucus. Bush got it, too. He flatly said on Wednesday that Democrats would be easier to work with on immigration.

Candidates matter
Schumer and his House counterpart, Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, deserve credit for their candidate-recruitment efforts, but some of their sweetest victories came gift-wrapped.

Montana's Burns couldn't do much about Iraq, but did he need to refer to his house painter as "a little Guatemalan," or engage in loose talk about shadowy terrorists who "drive taxicabs in the daytime and kill at night," or inexplicably insult a hotshot crew from Virginia fighting forest fires in Montana?

Some losing candidates, including Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., and Maryland Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich, ran savvy campaigns and simply found themselves outgunned in blue states in a big Democratic year. Others were poorly prepared. Rove had high hopes for Lynn Swann as a Pennsylvania GOP gubernatorial candidate, but the White House did nothing to season him for elective politics. Swann is an attractive African-American, comfortable in front of a microphone, with high -- and positive -- name identification as a former star with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He also was a neophyte who could have benefited from time in Bush's Cabinet.

Pennsylvania showed that the "six-year curse" for a president's party is serious. Two years ago, Bush lost Pennsylvania to John Kerry by 51 percent to 48 percent (only 144,000 votes). This year, Swann lost to Gov. Ed Rendell by more than 800,000 votes, while GOP Sen. Rick Santorum lost to Bob Casey, 59 percent to 41 percent, despite outspending him by some $10 million.

Casey was an interesting example for another reason. In a previous time, party leaders would have shunned him for following Catholic teaching on abortion, rather than Democratic dogma, just as they did with his father. Not this year. A similar dynamic was present with a handful of new House members, including former Redskins quarterback Heath Shuler, who paints himself as pro-gun, pro-God, "pro-family" -- yet attracted grassroots volunteers from Move to his campaign in the mountains of North Carolina.

Iraq matters most of all
This wasn't all Swann's and Casey's fault. Bush hasn't lost an election since 1978, but he lost one on Tuesday, and Iraq was the main reason. Election Day 2006 coincided with Bush's lowest job-approval rating in Pennsylvania (32 percent) in four years. A Keystone Poll done on the eve of the election showed that Iraq was the biggest issue on Pennsylvanians' minds.

This was true in many places. Democrats knew that Jon Tester had a real chance to unseat Burns when a September survey showed that 54 percent of Montanans disapproved of Bush's handling of Iraq. Several retired generals called for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's ouster. Some went further. "The best thing that can happen right now is for one or both of our houses to go Democratic so we can have some oversight," Gen. John Batiste, who led the Army's 1st Infantry Division in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, told reporters. "It is time for a change."

Iraq also exacerbated a troubling trend: the propensity of partisan voters to increasingly view all events through a distorting ideological prism. An election-eve Pew Research Center poll showed that Democrats can't bring themselves to admit that the U.S. economy is robust, a 4.4 percent unemployment rate notwithstanding. Meanwhile, a majority of Republican voters claim not to see that the war in Iraq is quicksand.

There are second acts in U.S. politics
A quick conventional wisdom congealed in Washington on Election Night: Not only was Bush a lame duck, but George Allen's meltdown and John Kerry's unforced campaign gaffe supposedly finished both as 2008 presidential candidates. But it took Bush less than 12 hours to rebound; he signaled that he got the voters' message by firing Rumsfeld. "I think the president will surprise people," said Bush campaign aide Mark McKinnon. "As governor in Texas, he worked well with Democratic leadership in the House and Senate and got a lot done."

Kerry and especially Allen have a harder row to hoe, but it was a massive midterm defeat in 1962 that supposedly relegated Richard Nixon to history's dustbin. And it was only eight years ago that Hillary Rodham Clinton was merely the wronged wife of a supposedly disgraced president.

This week Clinton and her husband took the stage in triumph as she racked up a landslide re-election victory in New York. Sen. Clinton also raised more money than any other candidate in the land. Six weeks ago, Democratic fundraiser Steve Grossman speculated that 2008 presidential candidates must raise $50 million to be competitive. Well, Mrs. Clinton raised $38 million in a Senate campaign in which she had only token opposition. Wonder what she could do if she was really trying.

Marc Ambinder, associate editor of The Hotline, National Journal Group's daily briefing on politics, contributed to this story.