What the heck just happened?
You listen to Bob Goodlatte, Republican congressman from the Sixth District of Red State Virginia, heading into his eighth term, finishing out his second two-year term as chairman of the powerful House Agriculture Committee, talk about life on Capitol Hill, and you realize pretty quickly that a sea change is on the political horizon in America.
“We worked well with Democrats when we were in the majority – and I expect that that will continue in serving in the minority,” said Goodlatte, who was re-elected last week in a race in which he once again faced no major-party opposition – the last time the Democrats ran somebody against Goodlatte was way back in the last century, in 1998.
“We’ll certainly stand up for what we believe in – but we’ll also reach across the aisle and make sure that on things that we can agree upon and can work on that I am a part of that process,” Goodlatte said.
“I was successful doing that my first two years in office when I was in the minority – including getting legislation passed that was important for my district. I think that will continue. I have a reputation for working with people who are willing to work together to solve our nation’s problems – and I expect that will continue,” Goodlatte told The Augusta Free Press.
You might have heard this already – that last week Democrats won control of both the House and the Senate for the first time since the 1992 election, the year that Goodlatte was first elected to represent Western Virginia in the lower federal legislative chamber; and that in Red State Virginia, George Allen, a popular incumbent senator who was also a popular former governor known for his reforms of the state parole system and the push to raise public-education standards, was swept out of office by a Democrat, Jim Webb, whose focus from day one of his abbreviated 10-month campaign was on effecting a change in direction in the war in Iraq.
Knowing those basic facts, we’re no closer to an answer to the question being bounced around since Election Night – namely, what the heck just happened?
“It’s going to take us some time before we will be able to fully gauge the magnitude of the changes that are taking place here – and how deep they’re going to run, how expansive they’re going to be, and in the long run, what can be accomplished as the result of the change that we’ve seen,” said David McQuilkin, a political-science professor at Bridgewater College.
“I think the change is momentous – because even though I’ve seen (syndicated columnist) George Will and (Republican National Committee chairman) Ken Mehlman follow the same line, and others have been trying to do the same thing, trying to minimize the Republican loss, saying it happens every 12 years, and this is how many seats usually change hands, I don’t think that bespeaks clearly enough of the changes taking place,” McQuilkin said.
“The pattern of the past 15 years is that we have a very, very divided electorate, the two parties have been extremely close, losses and gains have been offset on both sides by losses and gains. And you have a president who’s operating with a fairly thin majority in the legislative body – and yet been able to accomplish basically everything that he’s wanted to do. Now, you have a swing of 30 seats, and that is magnified tremendously by the narrowness of the political divide that has traditionally existed over the past decade and a half,” McQuilkin told the AFP.
Indeed, the string of narrow victories rung up by Democrats – though very much across the board – was also reflective of the divided America that we have lived in the past several election cycles. That was readily apparent in Virginia, where Webb, a former Republican who served as secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, defeated Allen by just under 9,000 votes of the 2.36 million votes cast – at the same time that a state-constitutional amendment to define marriage as being between one man and one woman passed with a solid 57 percent majority.
“I think if you had to give this election a title, it would be, The Tale of Two Virginias,” said Quentin Kidd, a political-science professor at Christopher Newport University. “Because I think the Webb victory speaks to this Virginia that we’ve all been talking about, this sort of changing Virginia – I call it the Periwinkle Pink Virginia. Not blue, but not cardinal red – kind of periwinkle pink. But the constitutional-amendment issue speaks to the traditional cardinal-red Virginia.
“And so in one election, we have an example of the potential for Democrats to make gains in Virginia, but also an example of just how far they can go,” Kidd told the AFP.
Brian Moran, the chairman of the Democratic caucus in the Virginia House of Delegates, reads the trends from last week in the Old Dominion as being generally very positive for those on his side of the aisle.
“This shows that Virginians will vote for Democrats,” said Moran, a Northern Virginia legislator who will be heading up the Democratic Party’s efforts to make gains in the Virginia General Assembly in next year’s state elections.
“Democrats have an appealing message to independent voters – of investments in education, and making them in a fiscally responsible way,” Moran said.
“This is proof that Democrats are successful when we are results-oriented – when we stick to the kitchen-table issues, demonstrate to Virginians that we are capable of leading and governing. And it’s proof that we can once again be a majority party,” Moran told the AFP.
That might be reading a bit too much into what happened in Virginia, to hear Bob Denton, a political-science professor at Virginia Tech, explain things.
“When you look at this race, it is about Allen in terms of his self-inflicted wounds,” said Denton, referring to the change in momentum in the Allen-Webb race that came at an August rally in Southwest Virginia in which Allen identified for those in attendance a Webb campaign volunteer recording the event on video by a racial slur – at a point in the race when Webb was all but down for the count, trailing by 16 points in the polls and hearing that the national party was probably not going to be devoting any of its resources to his election effort.
“That was clearly very important,” said Matt Smyth, an analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “It certainly didn’t do the whole job, but it opened the door, and it allowed Webb to gain some momentum – turned out that that translated into some national money that went into advertising. And in the end it looks like Allen only outspent Webb by about a two-to-one margin.
“That all said, there were some national trends at play here as well – more than you’ve seen in a lot of recent Virginia congressional elections, anyway,” Smyth said. “Virginia is a reliably red state when it comes to presidential elections – but in terms of selecting their statewide leaders, whether it’s a statewide race for governor or a statewide race for Senate, it tends to be fairly independent-minded and not always tied to national trends.
“I think this year you saw a national trend that was much stronger than usual – that permeated a lot of races, a lot of districts, that it normally might not have – and I think Virginia was on that list,” Smyth told the AFP.
That national trend is forcing Republicans to look inward. Jennifer Stockman, the chair of the Washington, D.C.,-based Republican Majority for Choice, a GOP group that advocates a more middle-of-the-road approach than the conservative-first focus that the national party has adopted in recent years, said the results of last week’s elections should be a “powerful lesson” for Republicans as to what direction they should take in the future.
“In the past, the Republicans have sort of neglected or ignored that message – that they need to return to the center – because they’ve relied so much on the so-called base. I think this election was a whole new kettle of fish – and it was the moderates who defected and voted for the Democrats and caused these huge Republican losses,” Stockman said.
“If the Republican Party doesn’t recognize that fact, then we can forget the majority in Congress for decades to come – and we can forget the presidency in 2008. It’s a lesson to be learned – whether they learn it or not, your guess is as good as mine,” Stockman said.
The defeat of Lincoln Chafee in his Senate re-election battle in Rhode Island could be best illustrative of what Stockman had to say there. Chafee was bounced out in spite of data from one Election Day exit poll showing his approval rating among Rhode Island voters at 62 percent.
“It was the Republican label. Voters said, We’d rather have a Democrat, because we don’t trust the Republican agenda. It’s more about politics than it is about authentic policy,” Stockman told the AFP.
Chris Saxman, a Staunton Republican who represents a portion of Western Virginia in the Virginia House of Delegates, for his part wonders aloud about the decision of President Bush to replace much-criticized Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld the day after the election returns came in – and not instead before the election, when it could have made a difference in helping Republicans like Chafee who were put on the political bubble because of voter dissatisfaction with the administration’s handling of the war in Iraq.
“If it was negotiable to get rid of him, why wasn’t it done weeks ago? If you had to play the what-if scenario, you were losing in the first part of October, you say, we’re going to go on a new course, we’re going to get rid of Rumsfeld, why didn’t you do it then?” Saxman said.
“Unlike a lot of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, I’m not an expert on Iraq, they don’t know that they aren’t either – they love to think that they are, and they know better than Donald Rumsfeld. That’s laughable. But for all the sudden people to say, Oh, we got rid of Rumsfeld, for Bush to do it is just ridiculous – now. If you understood what the message of the election was, if you wanted to hold onto him and jeopardize the election, if it was that big of an issue, and could change the course of Iraq – it just seems ridiculous,” Saxman said.
The sack of Rumsfeld sets a tone, in Saxman’s mind, for how politics is going to be waged in the changing Washington environment – and as far as Saxman is concerned, it isn’t going to be pretty.
“For the Democrats to say, Now, we want to be bipartisan, it’s just a flipping joke,” Saxman said. “I mean, here they are preaching bipartisanship when for the last six years they’ve done everything they can to obstruct any kind of progress whatsoever by the administration and the Republican Party. So yeah, it sounds good, it’s a good soundbite for them, but are they capable of doing it?
“I don’t think the MoveOn.org are going to let them do that. They want out of Iraq now, they want the taxes raised now, they want to impeach the president now – and now they’re saying, We just went through a really nasty campaign, but we didn’t mean it. I don’t think (California congressman and Democratic Party House leader) Nancy Pelosi, for instance, is interested in bipartisanship. I just don’t buy it – after an election like that,” Saxman said.
“They’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting to be able to push their issues – and there’s (New York Sen. and 2008 Democratic Party presidential-nomination-race frontrunner) Hillary Clinton waiting in the wings saying, Guys, we’re not going down the middle of the road. Because that base, that party, is not going to let them. That’s been one of the problems of the Republican Party, too, electorally – you can get too far out into the extremes. And believe me, the leadership of the Democratic Party nationally is not the people who won those 30 seats to take control of the House,” Saxman told the AFP.
There are actually some rather strong incentives in place for Democrats to want to work and work well with the president and the Republican Party the next two years.
“It’s incumbent now upon Democrats to govern and lead in a nonpartisan or bipartisan and civil way. Democrats now have to stand for something,” said Moran, the Virginia legislator whose older brother, Jim, is a Democratic congressman who represents the Ninth Congressional District of Virginia in Washington.
“The Democrats are not going to be able to go in there and simply say, The policy is wrong, we’re going to change it. Because that’s not going to work,” McQuilkin, the Bridgewater College professor, said. “If they try that, I think what they’re going to do is end up with a complete and total stalemate – and if that happens, the Democrats will put themselves in considerable jeopardy, because rather than attempting to work to find a solution, they’re just simply magnifying the differences.
“The Democrats are going to face a complete re-election of the House in 2008 – and it is going to be the Democrats who have many of the majority seats up that they’re going to have to defend, not the Republicans,” McQuilkin said. “That could have a significant impact on how the voters respond. If the Democrats don’t demonstrate any willingness to solve problems, put forth programs that are going to alleviate some of the difficulties that many Americans find themselves confronting or having to deal with on a daily basis, then they’re not going to be re-elected.”
“Democrats, as the joke goes, need to be careful what they wish for. Having both houses now, they have the accountability and the responsibility and, in some ways, if you want to be somewhat cynical, taking both houses might not have been to their long-term advantage, because it does make them responsible, people will say, for the economy, change in war and things like that for the next two years. So it certainly makes them want to be more strategic, at the very least, it seems to me,” said Denton, the Virginia Tech professor.
“It’s not something that a lot of politicians on both sides of the aisle are unfamiliar with,” said Smyth, the UVa. Center for Politics analyst. “I think we’ll get into a situation where both sides sort of feel themselves out. President Bush has made it clear that he is interested in working together with the Democratic Congress, and he felt that they were interested in working with him, as long as it was toward some type of shared goal. You’ve heard already talk on both sides – Nancy Pelosi is talking about working in a bipartisan manner, you’ve the president talking about working together. So I think the parties are going to talk about it initially.
“In terms of actually getting sworn in and getting chairmanship of the different committees and that sort of thing, that’s something Democrats haven’t done for a while. So you’re liable to see some growing pains, I guess, in terms of being familiar with that – just sort of having that power that they once had,” Smyth said.
“I actually think they will work together. I think level heads will prevail,” said Kidd, the Christopher Newport University professor. “There will be some skirmishes, but I think the Democrats surely know that they can’t really change what’s happening in Iraq quickly – if there’s going to be change, it’s going to take a little bit, a few months, a half-year, a year.
“Bush, you have to remember, has a record as governor of Texas of working with Democrats – and there have been hints coming out of the White House that he’s going to moderate, that he’s going to try to work with Democrats. And I think that will happen,” Kidd said.
Bush, indeed, like the Democrats, has an incentive to want to work in a bipartisan manner.
“For presidents who are two years out, only two more Christmases in the White House, it’s all about legacy,” Denton said. “He’s going to be highly motivated now – because how he ends his presidency is going to impact how historians and people in general feel about him for years to come. So he is motivated – but his party members perhaps are in a difficult situation.
“It’s going to be interesting to see what his comments are – whether he’s going to be amenable, or will he continue to be somewhat stubborn, as he was on the campaign trail,” Denton said.
McQuilkin takes an opposing viewpoint on the issue of Bush’s willingness to work with Democrats – pointing to reports last week that made their way into the headlines amidst all the happy talk of bipartisanship regarding the president’s desire to push through the nomination of John Bolton to serve as ambassador to the United Nations and to push through legislation to authorize a controversial National Security Agency domestic-surveillance program before Democrats assume control of Congress after the first of the year.
“The question underlying all this talk about the president being willing to work in a bipartisan manner is – is he going to be willing to do so, given his past political indications, given his personality?” McQuilkin said. “He’s proven himself to be extremely combative. He’s proven himself to be highly unwilling to work with anybody who he disagrees with. He’s proven himself to be extremely stubborn and unyielding on any point – because he believes himself, whether he is or is not, he believes himself to be right, and he has the real insight as to what’s going on. Time has proven that that is not necessarily true – but George Bush believes it.
“The administration is going to try to tie the hands of the Democratic majority as tightly as they can before this Congress adjourns – so that they have as much in place and as much power and influence and authority as they can possibly get, and have things already in motion so that they can continue to function, leaving the Democrats largely grasping at air. We’re seeing that already,” McQuilkin said. “So it’s going to take the Democrats a while to begin that process of trying to resolve things and trying to come up with new policies and trying to come up with new approaches – at which point you’re going to have now the White House essentially having that interim period to bring the country back to, I’m President Bush, and I’m right – and to reintroduce and re-establish the ideas of stay-the-course, we-can’t-give-up, et cetera.
“The American public says, We don’t want that – but I think you’re going to see Republicans try to convince them otherwise,” McQuilkin said.
You get a sliver of a sense of that when talking to Goodlatte about what he sees coming up on the American political horizon.
“Nobody likes war – and nobody likes a war that has gone on now for four years. But I think people also understand that it would be a big mistake to simply pull out of Iraq and see all of the resources that the terrorists are pouring into Iraq in terms of money and terrorist fighters and so on spread across the world, including the United States. We’ve been very safe for the last five years – and it’s in large part because we’ve taken the fight to the terrorists in addition to doing the things necessary to try to keep our country more secure,” Goodlatte said.
“This needs to continue in terms of conducting the war on terror – but we also need to do it in a smart way and in a way that adjusts our tactics and takes a look at the overall strategy to see where we might make some changes,” Goodlatte said.
“The most important thing is to understand that we’re elected to represent the people and to work with those who are elected from other parts of the country,” Goodlatte said. “So we’ll go to Washington and attempt to pursue a constructive agenda of promoting strong growth in our economy and making sure that we continue to keep our country secure and take the measures necessary to win this war against terrorism – and also to address some of our other concerns, like cracking down on illegal immigration, making our country more energy-independent.
“That agenda will be clear to the public – and if we can work with the Democrats, we certainly will do that. But where we disagree with them, we’ll certainly spell out our differences as well,” Goodlatte said.