Parties May Misread Results

As I write this column, new poll results reflect a pre-election tightening in both the so-called generic ballot and in various races that might or might not mean Republican voters are preparing to pull their party back from the abyss and at least mitigate the electoral disaster it has brought upon itself.

I hope they do, of course, but worry that if the GOP dodges the bullet again, my fellow Republicans will once again learn all the wrong lessons from what they have gone through. GOP House leaders will blame their troubles on President Bush, Iraq, the media, Jack Abramoff and Mark Foley, but conclude that their leadership and spending styles saved the day.

The White House, meanwhile, will decide that the election was, after all, a referendum on Iraq and President Bush and that since GOP losses were held to abnormally low levels by historic standards, they won and would, indeed, have done even better but for the media, Jack Abramoff, Mark Foley and, oh yes, the bumblers running Congress.

Winners and losers alike tend almost without fail to misread the reasons voters vote for or against them. Winners come away believing the voters must agree with them on everything and voted for them to give them a mandate to pursue their own personal or ideological agenda, while losers blame everyone but themselves.

Thus, Bush haters in Congress will see a Democratic victory as a mandate to take the president’s administration apart through oversight and harassment. The word on the street is that the subpoenas have already been prepared and will be served as soon as the next Congress convenes and it’s a sure bet that Democratic staffers are preparing legislative proposals on every issue under the sun that reflects the new liberal mandate they expect today.

If the Republicans hang on in the House or lose by a narrow margin, they should realize for once that it wasn’t Bush or the Democrats who were their undoing. To the extent that voters tomorrow will be voting their approval or disapproval of the job Republicans have been doing, the GOP will lose big, but if that happens Democrats would be wise to avoid concluding voters are buying their act.

This is perhaps the most non-ideological election we’ve seen in some time, though ideologues will conclude differently. They do so at their own risk, because it has turned on questions of integrity, competence and management—questions that don’t elicit ideological answers. Those who try to recast the results in ideological terms are likely to run into trouble down the road.

What’s more, if politics is at least in part a game of expectations, the Democrats are not going to do as well as most of them expect and all of them hope. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) may get to pick out drapes for her new offices, but the giddy expectation that her party will gain the 30 to 40 seats some of her colleagues and their friends in the media have been predicting are not likely to be met. She is much more likely to sneak into the speakership with a razor-thin majority that will include a number of “moderate” freshmen who won by swearing that they don’t share her values and won’t increase taxes, spend the nation into bankruptcy, further liberalize our abortion laws or launch a new assault on gun owners.

Indeed, if her party wins control of the House, she is likely to face the same sorts of problems Republican Congressional leaders have had to confront over the last few Congresses knowing that a few “moderates” within their party were in a position to make or break them. As a result, they found themselves spending an inordinate amount of time and effort tailoring legislation to accommodate the desires and whims of folks like Connecticut Republican Reps. Nancy Johnson and Christopher Shays just to keep their majority together.

Their leverage within their party’s caucus was traceable to the slim majority with which GOP leaders were forced to work and the fear that unless moderates were accommodated, they could lose their seats and with those seats would go the majority. In many cases that fear was exaggerated, but there was enough to it to give them influence far exceeding their numbers within the House GOP caucus.

Assuming it wins control today, the new House Democratic leadership will face the same problems, because while the GOP in the next Congress is likely to be more ideologically homogenous, the candidates the Democrats recruited this time around, and the campaign pledges those candidates made, will temper or frustrate the liberals their election will put into the House leadership.