As George Bush put it, the Republicans took a “thumpin’” on November 7th. By the time the counting and recounting is finished, the balance of power in the House of Representatives will have essentially flip-flopped, giving the Democrats approximately the same numerical strength that the Republicans had prior to the election. In the Senate, they will hold a one vote majority, providing that recently exiled Joe Lieberman makes good on his word to continue to caucus with the party that abandoned him.
That’s the result of what happened on Tuesday, but what actually happened? Well, a lot of things. To state the obvious, GOP candidates were paddling up stream, against public opinion infected with the infamous “six year itch”. There was bad news from Iraq, scandalous lobbyists in black fedoras, a gay congressman that liked to text dirty talk to House pages, and a hostile press (ok, that’s not new) that will no doubt soon begin to discover that the economy is actually in great shape, their previous reporting notwithstanding.
Add to that years of allowing themselves to adopt the drunken-sailor attitude towards federal spending, losing their appetite for reform, failing to make real progress on the issue agendas of those who helped elect them in the first place and, more recently, failure to adopt a party-wide strong stance on the immigration issue. In the end, the Republicans did more to lose the election than the Democrats did to win it. But the result is the same.
But what kind of Democrats won? In short, most of them weren’t your garden variety liberals. In fact, most of them ran as moderate conservatives. In the Senate you had former Republican military man Jim Webb running in Virginia; gun lovin’, big game butcherin’ John Tester in Montana; pro-life, moderate conservative Bob Casey in Pennsylvania and moderate liberal Sheldon Whitehouse running against moderate liberal Lincoln Chaffee in the blue, blue state of Rhode Island. Contrast that with far left liberal Democrat Ned Lamont losing out to moderate “Independent” Joe Lieberman in Connecticut.
In the twelve GOP House seats that were open, Republicans held five and lost seven. Of those seven loses, three were the “scandal seats”, (Ney, Foley and DeLay), which would have easily been held otherwise, (in two cases, the Republican’s name wasn’t even on the ballot). Among the newly elected House Democrats is Heath Schuler, a pro-life, pro-gun, evangelical Christian, (mark him as a prime GOP target for a future party switch).
This is not to say that the Democrats didn’t do well, they did. But they didn’t quite match up to the historical trend of off year gains for an out of power party, and their gains came largely in nationalizing the election around the issue of Iraq. Generally, they sought to define themselves around what they weren’t rather than what they were – and not as “liberal” alternatives to conservatives.
Then there were the ballot measures. According to the latest tallies, state marriage amendments passed in seven out of eight states. In Colorado, the amendment passed while an alternative referendum that would have created homosexual domestic partnerships failed. Arizonans made English the official language, legalized marijuana failed in each state it was on the ballot, and voters in the state of Michigan approved restrictions on affirmative action, (something the Supreme Court couldn’t bring itself to do over a year ago).
Add to that a clean sweep for amendments that would reign in government’s ability to use eminent domain to take private property as a means of increasing tax revenue, (again, something the Supreme Court couldn’t do). All in all, not a bad day for conservatives.
This is not to say there weren’t disappointments. The South Dakota abortion ban failed by ten points, but when you consider it allowed no exceptions whatsoever that probably indicates that a similar bill with rape and incest exceptions would pass, setting up a direct challenge to Roe vs. Wade.
The point is that the issue environment wasn’t bad for conservatism, as many moderate to conservative Democrats are now newly minted members of Congress. It was bad for Republicans.
Partisan cycles come and go and, odds are, the political environment in 2008 will offer Republicans a chance to contrast themselves with the Democrat leadership in Congress, which will be dominated by liberals. The conservative members of their caucus are sure to be shown to the back of the bus and the old liberal war horses that have been out of power for a dozen years will take the wheel. We’ve seen this movie before.
But in this election, as in elections for well over twenty years, the American electorate continued to demonstrate a general preference for conservative issues and governance. As the Republican leadership (and Republicans all across the country) conduct their post-mortems and plan for the future, they would do well to keep that in mind.