Left, Right, Center?—Even before the midterm elections were over, the mainstream media had found the narrative for the event: the results represented the triumph of “conservative Democrats.” The New York Times ran glowing profiles of Democratic challengers like Heath Shuler, the former quarterback from North Carolina who opposes abortion, gay marriage, gun control and illegal immigration. Voters had “exchanged moderate Republicans for conservative Democrats,” New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote following the counting of the ballots, thus summarizing the views of most of his colleagues.
Too bad the commentariat didn’t bother to examine what the victorious Democrats in the House and Senate actually stood for. Every Democratic candidate elected to the House supported raising the minimum wage and opposed privatizing Social Security, and only a small handful came out against a woman’s right to choose or expanding stem cell research. Even social conservatives like Shuler ran as anti-corporate, fair-trade economic populists. “More money was spent on ads painting Big Oil and Big Pharma as threats than on ads warning about bin Laden,” noted Bob Borosage of the Campaign for America’s Future.
Out west, so-called moderates such as Montana’s new senator, Jon Tester, opposed constitutional amendments banning gay marriage and flag burning, and supported the repeal of the Patriot Act. Virtually every newly elected Democrat ran against the war in Iraq and was accused by their Republican opponents of being “too liberal.” A very liberal Democrat, Sherrod Brown, won a Senate race in Ohio, and an adamantly right-of-center Democrat, Harold Ford, Jr., lost in Tennessee. In the next Congress, the Progressive Caucus will be the largest bloc in the House, with significantly more members than the conservative Blue Dog Democrats or the moderate New Democrat Coalition. That doesn’t sound like a victory for conservatism.
The Ethics Brigade—The war in Iraq may have been the raison d’être for Democratic wins. But scandal and corruption, taken together as a category, cost Republicans the most seats. We predicted in the November 1 issue that at least five Congressional seats of ethically challenged Republicans would change hands on November 7, including those in the districts of Tom DeLay, Mark Foley, Bob Ney, Don Sherwood and Curt Weldon. Turns out we undercounted.
Within the Senate, Conrad Burns, the member who took the most money from convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, lost to Jon Tester in Montana. Richard Pombo, a DeLay protégé and Abramoff ally who chaired the powerful House Resources Committee, lost to underdog challenger Jerry McNerney in California. Representative John Sweeney of New York, who recently showed up intoxicated at a frat party and was accused of abusing his wife, lost to Democratic lawyer Kirsten Gillibrand. In Ohio, a state awash in local scandals, Republicans lost the governor’s mansion, a senatorial seat and seats in the GOP-controlled statehouse and senate.
Though Republicans tried to escape the myriad scandals, the largest number of voters (42 percent) rated corruption and ethics in government as the most important issue in their vote, according to CNN exit polling. Scandal-conscious voters favored Democrats by a 22 percent margin. As the indictments go, so goes the nation.
Republican Recriminations—The votes were hardly tallied before the grumbling began. Why did Bush wait until after the election to fire Donald Rumsfeld? a chorus in the GOP asked. Why did Bush insist on talking about the unpopular war in Iraq so much instead of steering clear of the issue? Did he have to veto an expansion of stem cell research? Couldn’t the House leadership have forced Congressman Mark Foley to resign before his lewd e-mails became public? The moderates blamed the conservatives. The conservatives blamed the moderates. The party had abandoned the middle, said some. The party had hung the base out to dry. And so on.
“This defeat had a thousand fathers,” National Review wrote in a surprisingly candid post-election editorial. Then the magazine went on to harangue Congressional Republicans “for the loss of the party’s reformist credentials,” and Bush, for keeping “to the ‘stay the course’ mantra for far too long.”
“What went wrong for Republicans?” asked David Keane, President of the American Conservative Union, surveying the election damage. “Everything.”