For all that he did wrong to get himself to where he was Wednesday, George W. Bush did a pretty masterful job once he got there. With a couple of better-than-usual one-liners -- "it was a thumpin'" -- the president portrayed himself as someone who wouldn't be wallowing in the pain of repudiation. And with the announcement of Donald Rumsfeld's departure, Bush moved the story from what happened Tuesday to what will happen next.
"New Day in D.C.," the front page of the Miami Herald says. "Changing Course," says the San Francisco Chronicle. On the front page of the Washington Post, "Bush Ousts Embattled Rumsfeld" plays just above "Democrats Near Control of Senate."
Those might not have been the headlines of Karl Rove's dreams a couple of weeks ago, but they're not so bad now that his nightmare has come true. In Tuesday's election -- the one the White House kept insisting it was going to win -- the Republicans lost at least 27 seats in the House, six seats in the Senate and their majority control in both of those bodies. Yes, it's a "new day in D.C.," but let's not let Tuesday's results pass without acknowledging what they really mean.
For the Republicans, the results mean that the Bush approach to government -- "full speed ahead" on Iraq, "my way or the highway" on everything else -- isn't one the voters seem interested in tolerating anymore.
Voters weren't just scratching some kind of unavoidable six-year itch. In an e-mail message to supporters Wednesday afternoon, RNC chairman Ken Mehlman said that "the party of the incumbent president typically loses 29 House seats and three Senate seats during the second midterm. "Since World War II, he said, "this average loss is even higher. The truth? Since the end of World War II, three presidents have remained in office long enough to preside over sixth-year midterm elections: Eisenhower lost 48 seats in the House; Reagan lost five; Clinton gained five. That works out to an average loss of about 16 seats -- substantially fewer than Bush's Republicans lost Tuesday. Another way to do the math: Republican presidents have now lost an average of about 26 seats in sixth-year midterms since WWII, but the only Democrat to make it that far actually gained seats six years out. (And yes, the Democrats lost 47 seats in 1966 and Republicans lost 48 seats in the 1974, but those setbacks came under Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford, not in the second terms of John F. Kennedy, who was killed before he could have one, or Richard Nixon, who quit before his ended. It's like they're saying over at Talking Points Memo: If Mehlman wants to stake his flag on "This isn't as bad as Watergate," more power to him.)
Nor, we'd suggest, were voters showing that the country is moving farther to the right. You wouldn't think that's an argument that actually needs to be engaged now, but apparently it is. On the day after the election, the Washington Post characterized the United States as a country that "leans slightly right of center," and Mehlman said voters sent a message that Republicans have to hear "loud and clear": "We need to recommit ourselves to conservative reform."
We think we know what Mehlman means: His party has succeeded over the last six years -- when it comes to winning elections, at least -- by turning out the religious right and by whipping just enough of the rest of us into voting out of fear of another terrorist attack. With terrorism all but neutralized as a political issue this year -- pre-election polls showed that Americans trust Democrats at least as much as Republicans when it comes to dealing with national security -- all the Republicans had left was the religious right. To win those voters back -- to get them to flood the polls like they did in 2002 and 2004 -- the Republicans probably do need to "recommit" themselves to their conservative ideals, or at least to what has passed for them in the party's current evangelical iteration.
But to say that the voters at large somehow sent a message that they want a more conservative government? Jamison Foser has dismantled that one rather completely at Media Matters. We'll dispense with the argument this way: Name one House or Senate race, Ken, where voters ousted an incumbent Tuesday in favor of someone more conservative.