Let me begin this post-election analysis by admitting a few things.
First, I do not claim to have any special wisdom about what happened on Nov. 7. Second, I did not make any sweeping predictions about the outcome, because I was not confident enough in my usual sources to even hazard a guess — and I freely admit that the informal predictions I made to friends proved significantly off the mark. (Yes, Tony, you’ll get your $50.) Third, I disdain Wednesday-morning quarterbacking and am dismayed at how simple and crystal-clear the reasons behind “sweep” have proven… in hindsight. Yet, if the lessons were that obvious, then why couldn’t they be discerned before the first ballots were cast?
That said, there are a few things that warrant comment.
1. The voter-suppression effect of reporting in the mainstream media cannot be overstated. The drumbeat of months of uniformly negative reporting about the GOP and the war in Iraq took a toll, and given the closeness of so many of the deciding races, this effect may have contributed to the Democratic margin. After all, what better way to depress the Republican base and energize the Democrats than story after story about how corrupt and aimless the GOP Congress has become and how badly the war in Iraq has been conducted?
2. The margins in the deciding races was close, and a lot of otherwise safe Republican seats were lost for unusual reasons (e.g., resignations). Although the Democrats were smart in recruiting conservative challengers for these seats — it did prove to be a winning strategy — it remains to be seen whether the Democratic hard-left base can deal with the disappointments that will follow from having a closely divided Congress that includes even more conservative Democrats in the House. The odds that a torrent of radical legislation will flow from Washington is virtually nil; the ideological cast of the Democratic contingent is less to the left than it had been, despite the presence of so many of the old guard in leadership positions. The DNC has its majority; whether its sustainable given intra-party disagreements is a different matter altogether.
3. It appears that the Republicans underestimated the Democrats’ ability to figure out how to turn out voters in a 72-hour effort. Let us hope that this error in judgment will not be repeated in 2008.
4. In Michigan, the decades-long problem with the GOP is that the Republican leadership in the state has been more motivated by political evangelical Christianity than the people have ever been willing to tolerate. John Engler won because he was pragmatic; he could appeal to the Reagan Democrat tradition that pervades the rank-and-file members of the automotive industry. The DeVos family, however, has pushed preferred policy preferences on the state to the detriment of the party’s overall electoral viability. For example, the desire by the local party elite to have a universally unpopular school-voucher initiative question in 2000 cost George W. Bush the electoral vote and Spence Abraham his Senate seat. The “I’d rather be pure than victorious” strand of Republicanism is alive and well in Michigan.
5. The Republicans were their own worst enemy over these last few years. Speaking as a committed Republican, I can admit to a sense of disappointment over the gross overspending, lax oversight, coziness with lobbyists, and lack of legislative initiative that has marked recent GOP Congresses. I am loath to suggest that the GOP deserved to lose, but party leaders didn’t make a compelling case for retaining the majority.
6. A lot of pundits are saying that it’s all about Iraq. I have my doubts. Distilling the “why” of electoral results is rarely so simple and elegant, for starters. But Iraq is complicated, and few even among the educated have a decent grasp of what’s really going on. To argue that the election results were a referendum on Iraq is therefore misleading; it might be more accurate to say that the election was tinged by public misperception about the state of affairs in the Middle East. And as such, changing policy as a response to poorly informed public reaction is a bad idea. It does, after all, tend to reinforce the inappropriate behavior of those who use terror as an instrument of political persuasion.
This election has come and gone. The story of its long-term results and its impact on the 2008 race has yet to be written. But one thing is clear — there is a lot going on, and not all of it can be summarized into a handful of talking points.