Lessons Learned in 2006

The interpretation of election results is complicated, often self-serving, and a necessary predicate to future political success. The Democrats may fall prey to the illusion that winning control of Congress represents a sweeping mandate and repudiation of Republicans. Though dramatic, the loss of seats in both the House and Senate in the sixth year of an administration, particularly during war time, is quite consistent with past administrations. Republicans should not take too much solace in this observation, but Democrats ought not to be fooled either.

The assertion of an unequivocal Democratic mandate would have been more plausible if Democrats had run on a specific platform or if party leaders like the current House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid had played a prominent role in the fall campaign. Movements need a face, and the leading faces of the Democratic Party were hidden lest other Democrats be tainted with the Liberalism of their leaders.

Democrats essentially ran on an anti-Bush and anti-corruption platform. Indeed ten of the Republican seats lost in House were the direct result of specific local scandals.

Anti-Bush sentiment essentially reduces to an anti-Iraq policy position. Given the close vote counts in many districts, it is safe to conclude that if there were less dissatisfaction with Iraq, Republicans would have held onto Congressional power. In a very real sense, Democrats actually captured the public mood on Iraq, a non-specific angst. There is no conspicuous consensus on the Democratic policy for Iraq. Similarly, the public itself is deeply skeptical about Iraq. While the Left wing of the Democratic Party does not much want to succeed in Iraq as to leave, the public is justly frustrated with progress in Iraq and desperately seeks clear evidence of progress. The public would be patient with slow advances, but not with the lack of visible improvement. If there was a message in the 2006 mid-term elections it was to succeed in Iraq. Drift is unacceptable.

However, even the public’s position seemed confused. Senator Lieberman, a Democratic (running as an independent after loosing the Democratic Party primary) Iraq war supporter convincingly trounced truculently anti-war Democrat Ned Lamont in liberal Connecticut. By contrast, anti-war Republican Lincoln Chafee from Rhode Island narrowly lost his re-election bid. In the former case the public responded to a person of principle and in the latter case it rejected irresoluteness.

Further, Democrats would be wise to realize that they can maintain power so long as they appear to take a centrist approach. In exit polls, 21 percent of the people identified themselves as liberals, 32 percent as conservatives, and 47 percent as moderates. The US is still a center-right country and the Democrats are a Left-center party. At least social conservatism is further evidenced by the fact most of the anti-gay marriage referendums passed.

This poses a problem for Democratic leaders. Party activists are far larger more Liberal than the electorate and want to see some quick legislative return on their investment in the Democratic Party. However, if the Party moves too noticeably to the Left or appears to be cheering for failure in Iraq, it might find its return to Congressional power short lived.

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