What a difference two years make.
Liberal Yalies woke up on Wednesday morning after Election Day in 2004 and went about their schedules in eerie silence, stunned at the losses from the previous evening. The scattered crowing conservatives wore Bush-Cheney stickers to class and talked buoyantly about a new era of Republican domination.
I have seen remarkably few Bush-Cheney stickers this week. And I confess, I am tempted to write a column babbling happily about the historic Democratic tidal wave that swept across the country Tuesday night, extolling the virtues of the democracy that facilitated it and hailing the arrival of a new era in American politics. However, now that my own 24-hour Democratic orgy of celebration has ended, it’s time to ask where we should go from here.
Ted Fertik wrote a good column on this page yesterday making his case for why the miraculous Democratic recapturing of both houses of Congress constitutes an unassailable indictment of the entire Republican record over the last six years. But I would state things a bit differently. American voters are fed up with the Republicans — but not so much with the their overarching ideology, or even their record of governance, poor though it has been. Of course, Iraq, a “do-nothing” Congress and a series of Republican scandals all contributed to their almost poetic self-destruction. But voters pulling the lever Tuesday were also sick and tired of the approach they have taken to the political process itself.
Call it the Karl Rove strategy of winning elections. It’s pretty simple. Find a few key issues that are easy for voters to identify. Kill terrorists. Lower taxes. Protect values. Then, rather than worry about trying to build consensus, hammer those key issues home again and again, using them to energize a base of supporters and bring them out to the polls on Election Day.
This basic strategy has, until this week, brought the Republican machine electoral success. Karl Rove, and his rising GOP imitators and wannabes, have managed to pass themselves off as political geniuses for championing it. But they’re not. Though they have been remarkably successful at nailing their Democratic opponents on these crucial political staples, Karl Rove’s ambition of building a lasting Republican majority on this strategy was always a pipe-dream. In the long run, this brand of highly divisive, base-driven politics is fundamentally incompatible with responsible governance.
Voters saw a Republican Congress more interested in driving through a gay-marriage amendment, or a flag-burning amendment, or a viciously xenophobic immigration plan, or a repeal of the estate tax, than in actually trying to solve some of the country’s most serious problems. Sure, a majority of Americans in key states and districts may say they favor some of these measures. But outside a narrow GOP base, Americans care more that their legislators actually tackle problems that matter. What no poll can measure is how badly the public today craves real leadership.
So the Republicans are out, and the Democrats are in. But in all our excitement, we should not lose sight of the fact that the Democrats do not have a terribly sweeping agenda to go with their sweeping wins. Soon-to-be-Speaker Pelosi has an excellent shot at pushing through the minimum-wage increase, some fairly cosmetic changes to Medicare and the remainder of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations. Well and good. But if the Democrats want to remain in the majority, they will need to avoid the same temptations and gross errors of which the Republican leaders have been so guilty, and to which Pelosi and company will doubtless be prone.
Nancy Pelosi has been an effective political leader for Democrats in the minority because of her take-no-prisoners approach; her San Francisco brand of ruthlessness forced the Democratic caucus to fall in line, hold together, give no quarter to the faltering Republicans. Now that they have swept back into the majority, there will surely be great temptation to continue along this path (and also the same path the Republicans have trod for 12 years) by using the power of the majority in the House to stifle all opposition. With control of the House Rules Committee and all congressional committees, Democrats could bottle up all Republican legislation and deny Republicans up-or-down votes on key issues. They could abuse the power of subpoena to force the administration to give embarrassing testimony. And so on.
The Democrats go down that road at their own peril. They should have the courage to reject the Gingrichian/Rovian politics of the past and run Congress fairly, as it is meant to be run, giving the Republican minority a chance to introduce its own legislation. Democrats should work with the president, rather than constantly investigating his subordinates. Great things could be achieved over the next two years: There is an opportunity for historic compromises that could actually solve the great problems of our day. But these Democrats — and the next batch of liberal Yalies heading to Washington to join their new majority on the Hill — must be willing to put smart policy over politics. Let’s see if we can measure up.
Roger Low is a senior in Branford College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.