By William Galston
The 2006 election presents few analytical difficulties. Rarely have the voters’ judgment and the reasons for it been so clear-cut.
- This election was national rather than local—remarkably so for an off-year contest.
- This was a year in which political parties mattered more than they have in a generation, both as sources of issues and resources and as brand names that drove electoral behavior. Many voters rejected incumbents because of party identification rather than objections to their performance as individual representatives.
- Democrats’ gains were both broad (reaching most subgroups of the population) and deep (extending to every level of the federal system).
- Against the hopes of Republican strategists, this election was a referendum rather than a choice. The voters ringingly rejected the President’s handling of the war in Iraq, the majority’s conduct of the Congress, and Republican complacency about the economic condition of the middle class.
- The election was de-aligning rather than realigning. Millions of moderates and independents divorced the Republican Party, dashing Karl Rove’s grandiose plan to be the Mark Hanna of the 21st century. But these newly liberated voters have hardly plighted their troth to Democrats, whose standing with the public remains mediocre.
- The Democratic Party has been given a rare opportunity to reintroduce itself to the electorate. But the party is on probation. Whether it can move from probation to approbation depends on how it conducts itself over the next two years. The American people will be watching very carefully to see whether Democrats have learned from past mistakes and are ready once again to form a governing majority.
As most commentators have observed, moderate and independent voters revolted against Republicans in 2006. But the ideological composition of the electorate remained stable, with 32 percent conservatives, 20 percent liberals, and 47 percent moderates–virtually identical to 2004 and to the average of the past 30 years. The results underscored the pivotal importance of the moderate vote for Democrats. Every winning Democratic Senate candidate in red or purple states won not just a majority, but a supermajority, among moderates–59 percent for Jon Tester in Montana, 60 percent for Jim Webb in Virginia, 62 percent for Claire McCaskill in Missouri, 65 percent for Bob Casey Jr. in Pennsylvania and Sherrod Brown in Ohio. Harold Ford Jr. received 63 of the moderate vote. Indeed, he did better than Webb among liberals and conservatives as well as moderates. He lost only because Tennessee (unlike Virginia) is a deeply conservative state, with only 14 percent liberals (6 points below the national average) and a whopping 45 percent conservatives (13 points above the national average).
To an extent that is difficult to assess with precision, the results of the 2006 election reflected a transitory conjunction of negative trends that generated an unusually sour public mood. Republicans started measuring new drapes for the Oval Office in November 1994, a mistake Democrats would be ill-advised to repeat. Nonetheless, the most recent election illuminated some structural changes that are likely to persist and affect the results in 2008 and beyond.
- Mirroring 1994, in which Republicans captured numerous seats from Democratic incumbents in Republican-leaning (or dominated) congressional districts, Democrats this year virtually wiped out Northeast Republicans from Democratic-leaning districts and made substantial inroads in the Midwest as well. As was the case with the Republican sweep in 1994, this movement toward political consistency in 2006 will prove hard to reverse.
- Continuing a trend that began in the mid-1990s, young voters once again disproportionately identified themselves as liberals and gave a supermajority to Democrats. Unless basic findings of political science have been repealed, these formative experiences of early adulthood are likely to influence electoral behavior throughout the life of this cohort.
- The House Republicans did for the national party what Pete Wilson did for California Republicans in the mid-1990s–namely, send a signal to Hispanics that they are not welcome, to which Hispanics responded with a 14-point shift toward Democrats. The California Republican party has never recovered from the Wilson debacle. Unless the White House swiftly abandons House Republicans and makes common cause with Democrats on immigration legislation, the national Republican Party may labor under a long, and increasingly significant, disadvantage among Hispanic voters.
- The Electoral College map shifted toward Democrats. New Hampshire had a Democratic landslide and is now a solidly Blue State. Virginia has become a Purple State, while Colorado and Arizona are headed in that direction. And if newly elected Ohio Governor Ted Strickland focuses on building an effective party organization, he could nullify Republicans’ historic edge in voter mobilization by 2008.
The 2006 election has important consequences for both the 110th Congress and the 2008 presidential contest. The American people are looking for a congress that is more effective and less polarized. To meet these expectations, Democrats would do well to focus their early efforts on measures–such as the minimum wage increase, college financial aid, and ethics reform–that enjoy strong public support. If the Bush administration is willing to negotiate in good faith in areas such as immigration and the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, Democrats should display their willingness to cooperate. And if President Bush is willing to take the partial privatization of Social Security off the table, Democrats should at least participate in bipartisan discussions aimed at stabilizing the program’s finances for the long-term.
Two issues present special challenges–trade and Iraq. While the 2006 election suggests serious public discontent with our current trade stance, particularly in the pivotal Midwest, Democrats would pay a long-term price if they tack too hard toward a tempting populist/protectionist stance. Instead, the Democratic leadership should work with representatives of both manufacturing and trade-friendly states and districts to forge a unified stance on the kinds of protections for working families that should be built into our social policies as well as negotiating stance. As many analysts have noted, if we don’t get serious about compensating hard-hit industries and regions for the costs of globalization, a revolt against an open world economy is inevitable and would have grave consequences for our position of international leadership.
Concerning Iraq: While it will be tempting to draw a sharp contrast with the administration by advocating a prompt timetable for withdrawal of our troops, congressional Democrats would be better advised to proceed in as bipartisan a manner as circumstances permit. In the best case, a broad coalition of Democrats, Senate Republicans, former members of the military and the Administration would unite to support a new policy, abetted (one hopes) by the Baker-Hamilton group. Possible elements of such as policy include:
- intensified pressure on the Iraqi government (including the threat of partial troop withdrawal) to move toward a political and constitutional settlement with persuadable Sunnis;
- a reliable mechanism for ensuring a reasonable distribution of oil revenues, as Sen. Clinton has suggested;
- a firm declaration that the U.S. has no intention of planting permanent military bases in Iraq, as both Sen. Biden and Sen.-elect Webb have advocated; and
- an international conference involving Iraq’s neighbors and other key regional players to explore possible strategies for stabilizing the situation short of chaos and disintegration of the Iraqi nation.
If such a strategy fails, or is never tried, it will be time to embrace an exit strategy. But Democrats should remember that 30 years ago, they were blamed for ending an unpopular war in the wrong way, creating deep-seated public doubts that we are still working to overcome. The line between being an anti-war party and seeming to recommend American defeat is all too easy to cross.
The 2006 election has also shaped the terrain of battle for 2008. All the Republicans who might have run as the continuation of the current administration have been eliminated, and the party’s social and religious conservatives are left without an obvious consensus candidate. It is all but certain that the 2008 Republican nominee will represent not only a new face but also a new direction.
In this context, Democratic aspirants and those working to develop policy for the party should redouble their efforts to create a broad governing agenda for the nation. Barring unexpected developments, 2008 is likely to be a “security election.” Three linked issues will be central.
- National Security. Building on recent gains, Democrats must convince the people that our leader can be effective as commander in chief and steward of American foreign policy.
- Economic Security. Middle class Americans are anxious about the security of their wages, health insurance, and retirement as well as college affordability. Rather than tinkering around the edges, Democrats should advocate a new social contract to replace the eroding bargain left over from the post-war era.
- Energy Security. Coupled with rising concerns about global warming, the gas price spike and instability through the world’s oil producing regions have convinced the American people that the time is ripe for a major push toward energy security. Democrats should respond with bold plans that challenge the public as well as energy producers.
Once every generation, there is an opportunity to break logjams, address big issues, and lead the nation on the new course. 2008 is shaping up as such an election. The question is whether Democrats will rise to the occasion.
William Galston is a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and co-editor of The Democratic Strategist.