The 2006 election results were a rebuke not just to President Bush and Congressional Republicans, but to radio talk-show hosts and other right-wing polarizers.
The right managed to win seven more anti-gay marriage referendums across the country, but it was repudiated on Iraq, immigration and excessive religiosity.
At the same time, while Democrats won control of the House and possibly the Senate, they did so by capturing the votes of moderates and independents, whom they could lose easily with demonstrations of wretched excess.
It’s encouraging that Bush and incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and likely Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., are talking the language of bipartisan cooperation, but Democrats will be strongly tempted to exercise their passions against the president and his policies.
Exit polls showed that, once again, self-identified moderates made up a near majority of the electorate – 47 percent – and this group split 62 percent to 36 percent Democratic – a 9-point Democratic gain from 2002 and 8 points above 2004.
Only 21 percent of voters identified themselves as liberals and 32 percent as conservatives. Liberals supported Democrats nearly 90 percent of the time, while conservatives voted Republican by less than 80 percent.
While Republican and Democratic candidates held their partisan base voters by margins above 90 percent, independents went Democratic by a margin of 58 percent to 38 percent, a 10-point gain over 2002 and 9 points over 2004.
Clearly, these elections were a classic “six-year itch” referendum on the incumbent president – and Bush lost.
The scale of this loss was on par with the post-war average for such elections: close to 30 House seats versus the average of 32, and likely six Senate seats compared to the average of eight.
In elections during which the president’s popularity was low because of war, scandal or recession, however, the average is 47 House seats and eight Senate seats.
Democrats did not campaign on a distinct positive agenda, but rather against Bush and the Iraq war and for an ill-defined “new direction.”
Bush, of course, failed to win a majority of the popular vote in 2000, yet he began governing as though he had won a smashing mandate. Largely because of his response to terrorism, he managed to defy history by increasing his party’s majorities in two subsequent elections.
But he has turned himself into one of the most polarizing presidents in American history. And history has at last caught up with him.
The loudest message from the elections is that the nation wants a change of policy in Iraq. By a margin of 57 percent to 41 percent, voters said they oppose the war.
By 59 percent to 34 percent, voters said the war has not improved American security, and by 56 percent to 37 percent, they called for withdrawal of some or all U.S. troops, as opposed to maintaining current levels or sending more.
Yet full withdrawal is a distinct minority position – 30 percent – and Democrats won’t have the country’s support if they force it. Encouragingly, they say they won’t.
The clearest repudiation of the loud right came on the issue of immigration. By a margin of 57 percent to 38 percent, voters said they wanted illegal immigrants who work in the United States to be allowed a chance to apply for legal status and not be deported.
Voters in Arizona rejected two of the nation’s most vociferous immigration restrictionists, Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R) and Minuteman founder Randy Graf (R).
House Republicans massively bought into the talk-show claque’s agenda by rejecting Bush’s Latino-friendly proposal for comprehensive immigration reform, and they’ve suffered important damage as a result.
Bush managed to capture 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2004, according to disputed exit polls, but this year Hispanics went Democratic by a margin of 72 percent to 27 percent, 10 points higher than in 2002.
If Republicans and Democrats are looking for an issue around which to demonstrate they can unify and accomplish something, they could use the lame-duck session of Congress to pass the comprehensive Senate immigration bill.
The exit polls also suggest that a revolt took place this year against the right’s infusion of religious dogma into politics - as in the effort to keep brain-damaged Terri Schiavo alive and Bush’s veto of expanded federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research.
Some of the biggest gains scored by Democrats over 2002 election results were among people who attend church a few times a month (a 16 percent Democratic gain), a few times a year (10 percent) or never (13 percent).
At the same time, the rapid spread of anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendments in the states is the consequence of overreaching by liberal courts that have short-circuited the political process on a deeply felt social issue.
Democrats also gained 10 points among white males, possibly reflecting the fact that only 29 percent of voters said their personal finances were in better shape than they were two years ago and that 68 percent said they were barely maintaining their standard of living or were falling behind.
Democrats and Republicans have to work together to improve workers’ ability to cope with the high-tech global economy. Democrats will be tempted to be as isolationist on trade as Republicans have been restrictionist on immigration, but that would be a losing proposition.
Democrats and Republicans have a lot of tasks they can unite around – reauthorizing the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and No Child Left Behind, redirecting oil-company subsidies to alternative-energy research, trying to reach an accommodation on out-of-control entitlements and expanding opportunities to attend college.
Possibly the most arresting single statistic in the exit polls was the finding that a plurality of voters – 40 percent – believe the next generation of Americans will experience a life “worse than today,” while only 30 percent expect it to be better and 28 percent about the same.
This means that voters are discouraged not only about America’s present but also its future. The message of the elections is that the country wants its politicians to stop squabbling for partisan advantage and restore the American dream.
(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)
Copyright 2006, Roll Call Newspaper
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