Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Taking the Heat: Republicans Get Burned for Abandoning Ideological Middle

It was hot yesterday in Southern California. Downtown Los Angeles reached 97 degrees, breaking a hottest day record that had been standing since 1956, when Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House. I thought a heat metaphor would be appropriate in commenting on yesterday's election results. The Democrats were blazing hot, and the Bush White House and the Republicans took the heat in their dramatic election losses around the nation.

In the weeks ahead I'll be posting and commenting on the historic implications of the 2006 midterms. My initial reaction to the results is that the vote was a mandate for change, and not a dramatic realignment of party fortunes. Voters are unhappy with the pace of progress in Iraq and they're tired of the stultifying partisanship in Washinton, D.C. The Democrats in Congress have been given a mandate for performance, plain and simple. There is a national need to see movement on issues of importance to the electorate, and in that there a silver lining for the GOP, whose members can get back to stressing values of discipline and trust as they seek to resurrect their political fortunes heading into 2008.

As the Democrats take power in Congress, they need to be mindful about alienating middle-of-the-road voters.
According to Ronald Brownstein in his analysis of yesterday's vote, the Bush administration strayed from the ideological center, and got burned in its attempt to govern by emboldening the conservative base and resisting partisan compromise on key issues:

For six tumultuous years President Bush has provoked intense opposition while mobilizing passionate support for an ambitious conservative agenda.

On Tuesday, that perilous strategy crumbled — and triggered his party's abrupt fall from power.

Republicans lost control of the House, and teetered on the edge of losing the Senate as well. The widespread losses will present Bush and the GOP with a sharpened challenge from congressional Democrats eager to command attention for their policy priorities, such as raising the national minimum wage, and to investigate the administration's performance on Iraq, global warming and other issues.

In the long run, the reversals raise fundamental questions about the viability of the strategy Bush and his chief political advisor, Karl Rove, have pursued to build a lasting Republican political majority.

Bush and Rove placed their main emphasis on unifying and energizing Republicans and right-leaning independents with an agenda that focused squarely on the goals of conservatives.

But Tuesday's broad Democratic advance underscored the risks in that approach: In many races, Republicans were overwhelmed by an energized Democratic base and a sharp turn toward the Democrats by moderate swing voters unhappy with the president's performance."

The story line really is that the Democrats are winning the middle," said Democratic pollster Al Quinlan.Veteran GOP pollster Bill McInturff said: "Iraq is front and center of this election, and people voted for change. The GOP base held — was motivated and voted — but the margins among independents and moderates [for Democrats] was too much to overcome."

The National Election Pool exit polls conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International showed that 80% of voters who disapproved of the Iraq war voted Democratic for Congress, while 80% who approved voted Republican. But only about two in five voters approved of the war, while nearly three-fifths disapproved, according to figures posted by CNN....

John C. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron, said the erosion Republicans faced among affluent and working-class swing voters underscored the risks of Bush's decision to push an agenda opposed by nearly half the country on even his best days."

The Bush people chose to put up with a very high level of conflict," Green said. "They didn't try to build a large consensus majority."Bush wasn't on the ballotTuesday, but he loomed as a decisive factor. Attitudes toward Bush powerfully shaped the results.
Once burned, people tend to be pretty careful around fire. Republicans have a chance now to step back and take in the ramifications of their defeat. President Bush shows an admirable resolve on the issues, and there are times when the party in power ought rightly to pursue an aggressive electoral agenda as a responsibility to its constituencies.

Yet, governing also involves choosing battles and making deals, often requiring a willing nod to bipartisanship. Bush still has the institutional prerogatives of the executive branch, and he shouldn't be shy about weilding the veto pen, though he might be smart to bend a bit to the public's preferences for change and progress. Perhaps
today's resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld marks the beginning of such a shift.

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