The most obvious lesson of the 2006 elections, in which the Democratic Party became the majority party in both houses of Congress, is that the election was a referendum on the leadership of President George W. Bush. The president was quick to accept the verdict of the voters, announcing the following day the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld, his embattled secretary of defense, and reaching out to the new Democratic Congressional leadership with a promise to seek common ground.
On another level, the results of the 2006 elections could be seen as a victory of the American people over the political consultants, personified in Karl Rove, the architect of George W. Bush’s past electoral victories. The strategy behind those victories constituted a politics of polarization that appealed to the fears and prejudices of a political base by caricaturing Democratic candidates as supporters of same-sex marriage and defenders of terrorists.
But voters who described themselves as moderates and independents favored Democratic candidates by a healthy margin, and their shift from the support they gave Republican candidates in the presidential election of 2004 signaled, in the view of commentators across the political spectrum, a shift to the center motivated by dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the conduct of the war in Iraq and the political corruption associated with the lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The American people want change in Washington, the kind of change that moves leaders toward a bipartisan center that can accomplish the people’s business.
The president’s appointment of Robert Gates to succeed Mr. Rumsfeld signaled a shift from the hard-line, neoconservative ideology identified with Vice President Cheney to the more international approach associated with the foreign policy advisers of the president’s father, the 41st president, George H. W. Bush. The earlier appointment of James W. Baker to chair, along with former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, the bipartisan task force on Iraq was another sign of the president’s recognition of the need for a change in policy, despite his prior insistence on the need to stay the course.
History will surely record that the pre-emptive war of choice initiated by the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a tragic mistake, driven by ideological fixations and exploiting the emotional backlash against the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Still, the decisions to be made about U.S. policy in Iraq in the future are not simple or easy. The report of the Baker-Hamilton task force should provide some wisdom on what changes in strategy are necessary if we are to honor a commitment to the Iraqi people and, at the same time, not allow U.S. forces to become pawns in a sectarian civil war.
The new Democratic leadership in Congress should be ready to support a more enlightened bipartisan policy in Iraq, even while insisting that the people of the United States have a right to know how billions of U.S. dollars committed to the reconstruction of Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein were actually spent. In this regard, one of the first initiatives of the new Congress must be to restore the office of Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, which was shamelessly eliminated by the Republican leadership in a provision included in a huge military authorization bill. The Republican appointed to that office had embarrassed the administration by his candid reports on the incompetence and corruption that had undermined the reconstruction effort.
The national leadership of the Democratic Party should also learn from the election of 2006 that the politics of polarization have been a challenge and will continue to be one for the internal affairs of the party itself. One of the ironies of the 2006 elections was the victory of the Democrat Robert Casey Jr. over Republican incumbent Senator Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania. The new Senator Casey is pro-life, as was his father, a respected governor of Pennsylvania, who was not allowed to speak at the Democratic National Convention of 1992, it is widely believed, for fear of offending the pro-choice lobby that dominated the development of the party platform at that time. Along with Senator Casey, other pro-life Democrats were victorious over Republican opponents in Congress.
To continue their 2006 electoral success, the Democrats would be well advised to demonstrate a respect for religious and moral values and an independence of secularist ideology. As both parties begin preparations for the presidential elections of 2008, the enduring lesson of 2006 is that the people’s business is not served well by the politics of polarization.