Midterm Elections Present Opportunities and Dangers for Democrats

Andrew E. Busch

November 1, 2006

After having won a dramatic victory in Tuesday’s elections, seizing control of the U.S. House and almost certainly the Senate as well, Democrats are understandably giddy. It seems clear that Republicans made a hard charge at the end but fell inches short in three or four key Senate races and a plethora of House contests.

In many respects, the 2006 elections have put American politics back on its normal historical trajectory. The exceptions of 1998 and 2002, in which the president’s party escaped the midterm curse, were just that—exceptions.

A number of points might be made about the elections:

  • The nation remains closely divided. With control of the Senate hinging on three-tenths of one percent in Virginia, one percent in Missouri, and one percent in Montana, 2006 bore some eerie resemblance to 2000. Democrats have ended a long drought, but are far from having established dominance. In the Senate, Joe Lieberman now wields enormous leverage as the 51st “Democrat.”
  • Midterm elections remain a potent but calibrated way for American voters to send a message. If dissatisfied, they can express a desire for change without forcing an abrupt 180 degree reversal of policy and without putting complete power in the hands of an untested, and perhaps not entirely trustworthy, opposition.
  • It is clear that concerns about incumbency advantage and congressional gerrymandering have been overdrawn. As in 1994, voters demonstrated that if they want badly enough to clean house, they can do it.
  • Once again, the midterm elections have dramatically shaped both parties’ upcoming presidential nomination races. Some potential candidates have been effectively eliminated—George Allen and probably John Kerry. With a discredited congressional contingent, Republicans will look to an outsider, a governor (Mitt Romney or perhaps Minnesota’s Republican governor Pawlenty, one of the few survivors of ’06) or a maverick Senator like John McCain. Be prepared for Democratic boomlets for Jim Webb and maybe Bob Casey, Jr., as the media begins looking to broaden the field of plausible contenders.
  • The Democratic victories produced demonstrable joy from groups as varied as the Syrian dictatorship, Iraqi terrorists, U.N. bureaucrats, and a meeting of 200 French socialists. Democrats will need to acquire a different set of friends abroad if they wish to be taken seriously in 2008, when the identity of the commander-in-chief will be at issue.
  • Because the Democrats eschewed running on a positive program like the Contract with America, they may have greater strategic flexibility than Republicans did after 1994. On the other hand, the lack of a program to rally around may make it more difficult for Democrats to hold together their small majorities in the early months of 2007. Moreover, when Republicans in the 104th Congress were attacked for alleged “extremism,” they could defend themselves by pointing out that they had told Americans exactly what they were going to do in their campaigns. If Democrats veer to the left—and there is a considerable chorus within the party calling for such things as repeal of the entire Bush tax cut package, cutting off funds to troops in Iraq, or impeachment proceedings against the president—they will have no such defense.
  • A combination of unknowable events and the strategic and tactical choices of the President, congressional Republicans, and congressional Democrats will determine whether 2006 becomes 1946, 1958, or 1994. In 1946, Republicans gained control of Congress with a big midterm win, then turned around and lost their majorities back again two years later. They were outmaneuvered by Harry Truman, failed by a less than compelling presidential nominee, and undone by an underlying latent Democratic lean in the electorate. In 1958, Democrats made big gains, vastly expanding and cementing for years their majorities and setting the stage for a presidential victory two years later. Thus, 1958 represented in many ways the onset of the Great Society. Of course, 1994 saw a Republican takeover of Congress, followed by a GOP presidential loss in 1996 but continued control of Congress for the next decade. In one case, a party’s midterm gains were transient indeed; in another, they were quite long-lasting and predictive of a broader electoral shift; in a third, somewhat long-lasting but not predictive of a near-term presidential change. Much may depend on whether Democrats like John Conyers, Charles Rangel, and Henry Waxman will exercise any sort of self-control.

  • In a related vein, it might be worth considering whether a Cold War pattern is reasserting itself. From 1952 until 1992, Democrats controlled Congress the vast majority of the time but the presidency relatively rarely. A school of thought ultimately emerged that postulated that Americans liked divided government because it augmented checks and balances, and preferred a particular type of divided government: Democrats in Congress, dealing with domestic issues, and Republicans in the executive, giving a steadier and tougher hand to the conduct of foreign policy. To the degree that Republican losses in 2006 stemmed from concerns about Iraq, this possibility is called into question. On the other hand, voting for Sherrod Brown for Senate is one thing, voting to place the party of Sherrod Brown and John Kerry and Ted Kennedy in charge of national security is quite another.

In the end, the two-party system worked and will continue to work. The election reminded one of a remark made by Henry Kissinger during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s when he noted that the only bad thing about it was that they couldn’t both lose. Leaving aside the obvious and troubling questions about the capacity of the Democrats to govern responsibly, Republicans as a party had ceased deserving to win. Unfortunately, a large contingent of good men and women—people like Rick Santorum, Michael Steele, Ken Blackwell, Jim Talent, and Bob Ehrlich—were pulled under. Nevertheless, the American people exercised the option open to them to change their employees. That option will still be open two years from now.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.