For two years, Democrats seethed noisily over the convoluted Florida election returns that ultimately-with the help of a 5-4 Supreme Court decision-put Bush in the White House. The Democrats' plan was to start exacting their revenge in Florida, where they would retire Jeb Bush, and then go from there. It didn't happen. Jeb won convincingly, with considerable help from his elder brother, who campaigned there-and everywhere-with determination and exceptional effectiveness. After the election, the Republican Party held half the governorships in the country, expanded its margin in the House, and, most significant, recaptured the Senate. Moreover, Democrats and Republicans alike gave George W. Bush most of the credit.
The victory capped quite a sojourn. In January 2001, Bush had taken office with no coattails, no consensus, no majority, no mandate, and no margin for error on Capitol Hill. All of that changed on Tuesday, if barely, in an election that was at the same time exceedingly close and quite decisive. Suddenly, Bush's 10-gallon hat was holding 12 gallons-so much so that he could afford to be gracious. Asked at a White House press conference Thursday if he thought he now had a "mandate," a confident-sounding but self-effacing Bush demurred: "I think candidates win elections because they're good candidates, not because they may happen to have the president as a friend-or a foe, for that matter."
Whether or not he has a mandate, he certainly has an advantage. The question now is what he will do with it. When the 108th Congress convenes in January, Republicans will control the levers of the federal government. And leaders of both major political parties agree on the implications: Bush and his fellow Republicans must generate results. "If there's a mandate in this election, it's that people want something to get done. They want people to work together in Washington, D.C., to pass meaningful legislation to help their lives," Bush said Thursday.
"The burden of leadership rests squarely on his shoulders," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence R. McAuliffe. "The president got what he asked for, and now he'll have to produce.... No more blame game. No more nonsense about a dysfunctional Senate. This is his sputtering economy; he must take responsibility for it.... The Bush era of responsibility starts today."
It actually begins Tuesday, when Congress returns for a lame-duck session. Sen. Trent Lott, the Mississippi Republican in line to resume his former post as majority leader, downplayed expectations for that session, saying he wanted to keep it short and sweet. "I've never seen [a lame-duck session] that serves the American people well," Lott said.
But because Congress has completed only two of the 13 annual appropriations bills, the returning members will have to decide whether to fund individual programs bundled into one or several omnibus spending measures, or simply to pass another continuing resolution lasting until sometime next year. The very makeup of the lame-duck session is unclear. If Republicans are in charge, Congress could deal with bankruptcy reform and establishment of a Homeland Security Department, which Bush on Thursday called his "single most important bit of unfinished business." If not, they might have to wait until next year.
Long before then, however, both major parties in both houses will meet to reorganize themselves. House Republicans will select a new majority leader, almost certainly current GOP Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas. And the abdication of House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo.-perhaps for a 2004 presidential bid-set off a power struggle between Democratic Whip Nancy Pelosi and Caucus Chairman Martin Frost to succeed him. The contest foreshadows a larger clash that will occupy Democrats for the next two years: Will the defeated party retreat leftward, toward the ideological homeland of their staunchest special-interest groups and voting blocs? Or will the Democrats try to meet Republicans, who suddenly were spewing talking points that were all conciliation and compromise, somewhere in the middle? One hint is that the favorite is Pelosi, a California liberal who was the only member of the congressional leadership in either party to vote against the Bush-backed Iraq war resolution. Frost, who represents a swing district from Dallas-Ft. Worth, is more of a centrist.
What Really Happened on Election Night?
If Democrats don't have a consensus on where they're going, it might be because they don't have a consensus on where they've been. As recently as last weekend, McAuliffe predicted that on November 5, voters would be focused on pocketbook issues such as job security, the uncertain state of their pensions, and the rising cost of health care and prescription drugs.
"The numbers do not lie," McAuliffe said while ticking off negative economic statistics of the past two years.
After Tuesday's results were in, the party line switched seamlessly. The public was focused only on Iraq and the war on terrorism, Democrats said, and Americans rallied to their commander in chief the way they always do. "This election was a referendum on a popular wartime president," insisted Rep. Nita Lowey, chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "The debate on the war in Iraq kept us from shifting the agenda to the domestic front."
But Tuesday's election returns revealed that this analysis is incomplete. It's now apparent that Bush is an uncommonly popular president who can transfer that goodwill to other Republican candidates. This suggests that the president's popularity, rather than being at an artificial high (Sept. 11 occurred 14 months ago), owes much to swing voters who took their measure of the president in the aftermath of the attacks and formed a lasting impression. "He's had the longest sustained approval ratings of any president in modern history," McAuliffe conceded.
One implication of this phenomenon is that Bush promises to remain a potent adversary for Democrats. At a time of economic stagnation, not to mention legislative gridlock, Bush was able to control the national discourse. It's hard to make the case that if the economy improved and gridlock was broken, his popularity would necessarily decline. Moreover, the truth is that on the campaign trail, Democrats talked about the economy incessantly-often vastly outspending Republicans in individual races while doing so. The problem was that the Democrats weren't offering much in the way of solutions. Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., for instance, blamed the Bush tax cuts as one of the reasons for the tepid economy, but declined to call for their repeal. Lacking the votes to pass it, Senate Democrats didn't even bring a budget resolution to the floor. In the House, Democrats criticized the GOP budget, but never offered an alternative.
In other words, a national preoccupation with war, and terrorism, and the potent power of the presidency are not the only barriers between Democrats and the voters. That's the bad news for the Democrats. The good news is that the pressure is now squarely on the Republicans to perform. Voters will have objective standards by which to judge the GOP, because in his recent political travels Bush told Americans precisely what he'd do if they gave him a working majority in Washington.
`The Happiness Will Fade Quickly'
Bush insisted that he'd make "permanent" the 2001 tax cuts he shepherded through Congress. He called for flexibility in reassigning federal workers while fighting terrorism. He promised energy legislation combining futuristic research on renewable resources with more oil exploration. He took a swipe at trial lawyers, along with their Democratic allies in organized labor, for holding up a homeland security bill-and for good measure, he advocated tort reform. He said a Republican Senate would confirm his judicial nominees and pass a prescription drug benefit. In this stump speech, Bush outlined the GOP strategy for the next two years.
But as Democrats can tell him, having your party control Congress is no guarantee of presidential success. In his first term, Bill Clinton made little headway with a Democratic Congress. His great victories came later, after Republicans had captured both houses in 1994. This lesson may be lost on Republicans euphoric over this week's results, but those who worked for the previous president remember it well.
"Bill Clinton might say in a moment of candor that Republican control of the Congress-and Newt Gingrich!-were a big help when re-election time rolled around in 1996," says Mike McCurry, Clinton's former press secretary. "The Bush White House might come to lament [the] GOP sweep.... because they will be responsible for it all from now on."
University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato foresees a brief second honeymoon for Bush, in which he'll enjoy some success on his pet legislative projects. "But the happiness will fade quickly," Sabato adds. "Bush and the Republicans will be responsible for absolutely everything on their watch. If the economy and the war with Iraq and terrorism go well-fine and dandy. If the worm turns, though, the president will truly be Bush II, facing re-election with the electorate in a surly mood."
For now, congressional Republicans and White House strategists see opportunity, not potential disaster. With Lott setting the Senate calendar instead of Daschle, Bush expects quick votes on such issues as his faith-based-initiatives proposal and a new homeland security department. Republicans are also thrilled that every Senate committee chairmanship will change hands, starting with the Judiciary Committee, where Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., gives way to Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, who chafed at Leahy's habit of savaging-and stalling-many of Bush's judicial nominees.
This might be the issue Bush cares about most. He's not alone. Contemplating the likelihood that Bush will fill one or two Supreme Court vacancies, Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, pronounced the makeup of the federal judiciary the top domestic issue facing the nation. McCurry noted that because of the high number of judicial vacancies, winning Congress was tantamount to a GOP takeover of all three branches of government.
But change will come in all the Senate committees. The basic pattern is that liberal Democrats from the East and Midwest will be replaced by Sunbelt conservatives sympathetic to Bush's priorities. Particularly sweet for the White House will be the new order at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where Leahy's fellow Vermonter, James M. Jeffords, will be succeeded by dependable Oklahoma conservative James M. Inhofe. It was Jeffords's defection from the Republican Party four months into Bush's presidency that gave control of the Senate to the Democrats. And with memories of that drama still fresh, some have speculated that other Republicans might jump ship. The obvious suspects were liberal Republican Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and perennial maverick John McCain of Arizona, though both have dismissed the idea.
In any event, with only 51 Republicans in an institution tailored for consensus-it takes 60 votes to shut off debate-some veterans of the Senate were signaling that Republicans shouldn't get too jazzed up over their newfound majority status.
"The majority leader is not a ruler," cautioned Lott. "The Senate is a place that is difficult to get moving." He added, in words that can easily apply to the federal government itself, "The Senate was designed by our forefathers to be slow and deliberate to move. And boy, did they succeed. Some people say, `Full steam ahead. Let's get it done.' That's easier said than done."