November 7, 2006 [LINK / comment]
The people render their verdict
What will be the dominant narrative that best explains Decision 2006? Will voters affirm national unity in time of war, or will they repudiate President Bush and his "stay-the-course" policy in Iraq? Will they kick the corrupt rascals out of Capitol Hill, much as they did to the Democrats in 1994? Or will they hold their noses and excuse Republican foibles, reasoning that the Democrats have nothing better to offer? I don't pretend to have any special insight as to electoral behavior, but I tend to think the voters' "message" this year will be more muddled. Most Americans would probably like to express displeasure with [the Republicans] but stopping short of a clear endorsement of the Democrats' agenda. (What is the Democrats' agenda, by the way?) Much depends on how many people know who Nancy Pelosi and Ron Dellums are, and just what is at stake in this pivotal election. The fact that so many of the Senate races are so close is what makes any predictions subject to great uncertainty.
Rain is traditionally supposed to be good for Republicans, but that was not the sense I got as I stood outside R.E. Lee High School today. True, I live in the part of Staunton that is relatively upscale and therefore more Democrat-leaning, so I wouldn't expect it to be friendly. Still, it seemed to me that the Dems had more signs and more workers. People need to put this all in perspective and remember that the party of the incumbent president almost always loses seats in the midterm elections. The fact that Bush foiled the predictions of conventional wisdom in 2002 has in a sense artificially "raised the bar," making people expect he can continue to defy historical patterns. Politics, like life, tends to move in rough up-and-down cycles, with occasional abrupt, corrective jolts that simply cannot be predicted -- much like a "strange attractor." (See Chaos theory.)
And now for a roundup of pundit predictions and reflections:
Hugh Hewitt, who used to boast about a "permanent Republican majority," reminds us that Gerald Ford was closing the gap in the final days of Campaign 1976 but still lost. "The result was Jimmy Carter and Carter's legacies in Iran and North Korea." (Could Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid do that much damage?) Hewitt interviewed Karl Rove, who is confident "there will be a Republican Senate. I feel very good about Arizona, ... Tennessee, ... Missouri, ... [and] Virginia."
Andrew Sullivan is of course gleefully anticipating a Republican rout, and offers some advice to bring about that objective:
But in this election, I think it's vital if you're a true conservative or independent to grit your teeth and vote Democratic. This White House does not respond to measured or reasoned criticism. They need a metaphorical two-by-four in the face.
That's the classic "cut and run Republican/conservative" rationale, of course, and it is a very risky move. What if the Democrats do what Rove and DeLay did, changing the rules and gerrymandering districts so as to guarantee they'll maintain control of Congress?
Daniel Drezner is relatively detached from the dramatic showdown, declining to endorse anyone this time. (He voted for Kerry as a protest in 2004.) He does, however, draw attention to a novel form of dirty tricks practiced mainly by Democrats: "Google bombing," i.e., contriving to force search engines to list targeted candidates names near the top of search lists with negative terms.
As for Virginia bloggers, "Hanging" Chad Dotson expects the Republicans will retain control of the Senate (as I do), but he thinks they may even keep the House, which is being very optimistic, I think.
I tend to agree with Norman Leahy's glum prediction, and with his expectation of the fallout:
that divided government will return to Washington.
Will the Republicans learn anything if they are swept into the minority? Hopefully yes. Hopefully, they will rediscover the principles that brought them to power 12 years ago. But I'm not exactly optimistic.
Regardless of who wins tonight, I think it is safe to say that the Bush-Rove-DeLay style of "faith-based" Machiavellian governance is on its last legs. If the honchos in the GOP don't at least get that figured out, there is a risk that the party could return to semi-permanent minority status. Year after year, the GOP keeps straining to "mobilize its base" while ignoring the center of the political spectrum. How many times will they persist with this futile strategy? We will now find out if the Republican leaders and office holders are so complacent that they will ignore grass-roots complaints.
Gay marriage myths
In Virginia, the marriage amendment was probably the biggest factor in driving up turnout, on both the pro- and con- sides. That's what hot-button issues do, of course. I would like to know whether the emphasis on this issue helped or hurt Sen. Allen's campaign; I suspect it hurt him somewhat. I found much of the debate on both sides of the issue rather unsatisfactory and often misleading, but I am glad that it has at least prompted some serious reflection about a serious moral issue. The National Catholic Register stressed "three myths that dominate the marriage debate":
- Same-sex couples who want to marry simply want the same rights as others.
- Religious beliefs and human traditions make people uncomfortable with homosexuality, but there's no real difference between homosexual and heterosexual couples.
- Homosexual marriage is inevitable, so we might as well make the best of it.
I don't agree with all of the points in that article, but it does serve to get people to question the bland, conformist assumptions that most people make in public discourse. Hat tip to Rev. Kendall Harmon, who argues that marriage by its very nature as a social institution is discriminatory. (That parallels the point I made.) The marriage amendment in Virginia would no doubt pass with ease if it weren't for the additional prohibitions on civil unions. I heard outside the polls today that if this amendment fails, the General Assembly will pass a milder version in its next session.
Update: Early returns
So far the Democrats have gained three of the six Senate seats they need to regain control of the Upper Chamber: Lincoln Chafee lost in Rhode Island, Mike Dewine lost in Ohio, and Rick Santorum lost in Pennsylvania. The first two were expected, but Santorum's large margin of defeat is a big disappointment. For "Crunchy Con" Ron Dreher, he was the ideal sort of sincere, forward-thinking social conservative. (Dreher appeared on C-SPAN a few days ago.) It was nice that Joe Lieberman held on to his seat, getting sweet revenge on the anti-war Democrats, but as an Independent, he won't help the Republicans very much. Here in Virginia, the big news is that with  percent of the precincts reporting, George Allen
has a 30,000+ vote lead over [is, as of 11:57 PM, in a virtual tie with] James "Born Fighting" Webb, so Republicans can rest a little easier [will be up all night biting their fingernails. That was quite a large last-minute shift!] It all depends on the Senate races in Tennessee (where Republican Corker leads Ford), Missouri (where incumbent Republican Talent leads McCaskill), Arizona, and Montana (both too early to call).
It will be quite a while before we know much about the House races nationwide, but the Democrats are picking up several seats at least, and NBC projects that they will take a majority. Speaker Pelosi ... Speaker Pelosi ... Speaker Pelosi ... Poor Sean Hannity must be having nightmares.
Update: More pundits
In his last "Crystal Ball" of the campaign, Larry Sabato forecast that the Democrats would pick up exactly the six Senate seats they needed for a majority. On the House side, he expected a 29-seat net gain for the Democrats, which would give them a 232 - 203 seat advantage over the Republicans. One House race he missed was in Kentucky, where Rep. Anne Northup (R) lost her reelection bid to John Yarmuth. Sabato noted the extreme fluidity of the electoral dynamics, with two big events in the last few days: the exposure of Ted Haggard's hypocrisy and the conviction and death sentence for Saddam Hussein. Neither seems to have had much effect, however, or else they offset each other.
In today's Washington Post, E. J. Dionne "predicted" that whatever the exact outcome, it would become manifest to all that "The Republican Party no longer has a coherent governing philosophy." I think he overstates the amount of division in the party, but perhaps not by much. He brings up the various issues such as Iraq, immigration, and fiscal policy, and indeed there are sharp differences of opinion on all three. He was quite right to say that the tax issue has become "unhinged" from putting together a sensible budget. Indeed, tax cuts are now a stale mantra that doesn't attract votes like it used to, and serves primarily to undercut the Republicans' traditional advantage in fiscal responsibility. We'll have plenty of time to talk about that between now and January...
Dionne mocks the Republicans' dearth of ideas, which is ironic since that is how they tagged the Democrats during the 1990s, but we may be in the midst of another role reversal. What Dionne doesn't mention explicitly, is the simple fact that there is a terrible shortage of articulate, sincere, creative-thinking leaders in the Republican Party today. The typical House Republican these days is an ambitious, wealthy professional whose idea of economic progress is to cook up some kind of government-business partnership, especially in defense, education, or other high-tech sector. Pushing for a level playing field in which small businesses can thrive just isn't as popular as it used to be. Where are the conservative leaders with Big Ideas, like Newt Gingrich and John Kasich? Well, we've got John Shadegg from Arizona, for starters. Any others?