Post-Election Washington

And so the inter-party struggle pauses, if briefly, and the intra-party struggles begin. After such a profound shift of political power as resulted from this week’s election, both the winning and losing parties will inevitably enter a prolonged period (months, perhaps years) where each party’s factions — both ideological and other — and their interest groups, will struggle to gain advantage and dominance within their party.

The Republicans will argue amongst themselves why they lost and how to win next time, and the Democrats will argue amongst themselves why they won, and how to continue winning next time. At the same time personalities in each party will seek to become leaders (both nominal, in the Congressional caucus leadership elections, and actual leaders of the hearts and minds of their parties. The latter category is not restricted to senators and congressmen, but will include party activists, theoreticians, governors and 2008 presidential aspirants).

In those intra-party arguments, logic, reason and facts will be tempered by factional or personal interest. For instance, in the Democratic Party, the centrists will argue that they won the election because of centrist candidates; thus they may argue not only for centrist policy initiatives and at least the appearance of gestures to bipartisanship, but also for somewhat restrained oversight hearings of the Bush administration. Thus, by proving themselves responsible and moderate, they will argue, the public will see the Democrats as ready to lead at the presidential level in 2008. (A plausible claim.)

The liberal, anti-war, activist, Internet-driven base will claim that passionate anti-war, anti-Bush voters drove the Republicans out of office. (Also a plausible claim.) Anything less than highly aggressive oversight hearings (and perhaps radical health care reform and tax-the-rich legislation), they will argue, will only prove to their electorate that the Democratic Party is still the business-money driven, principle-bankrupt party it has been since Bill Clinton took it over. The Democrats cannot be powerfully partisan on the oversight hearings and simultaneously appear to be bipartisan — as seen either under the dome or in the public eye.

But even if Speaker-elect Pelosi and the Senate Democratic Majority leader (assuming the Senate goes Democratic also) decide to take the centrist path, they may not be able to enforce their strategy. In the House, the natural power relationship is strong committee chairmen and weak leadership. Throughout the 1970s-’90s, powerful Democratic Party chairmen — the barons — ran roughshod over weak speakers, such as Tom Foley. When Newt Gingrich became speaker in 1995, with much effort he was able to centralize power in the speaker (and elected leadership), forcing a united Republican strategy on weak chairmen. To do that he had to scrap the seniority system and choose committee chairman who would effectively and faithfully carry out the united party strategy.

But Pelosi has already committed to the seniority system. A group of older (70-something) hard-core liberal men who have been waiting a long decade to regain the power snatched from their hands in 1994 will be very hard, or impossible, to rein in. Unless they independently agree with the moderate strategy of the third way Clintonites (Rahm Emanuel, Steny Hoyer, the Democratic Leadership Council, etc.) we should expect rough legislative and public image management challenges for Mrs. Pelosi.

The congressional Republicans will have different but related problems. In the House, Republicans will initially agree to return to conservative-first principles, but will find it hard to do anything about it — other than issue unread press releases — as they will have no legislative power and little ability to gain any media attention. (Even friendly conservative talk radio hosts will not want to bore their listeners with long discussions of Republican "motions to re-commit" on appropriation bills that would reduce spending by 2.7 percent. The Democrats will give the Republicans their one bite at each legislative apple on a vote timed for about 10:45 p.m, every several weeks or so.)

A belated and now inevitably almost invisible effort to demonstrate fiscal probity will lead to a split between hard-core conservatives and others who may get tempted to join Democratic legislation when they can — to "get credit" with the public for doing something. Democratic Party bills rhetorically offering cheap prescription drugs, minimum wage increases, phony energy conservation and other such "soft" liberal offerings will pick up plenty of House Republican votes.

Because even minority senators can still be powerful forces, the Senate Republicans (having presumably lost four of their strongest conservatives — Rick Santorum, George Allen, Jim Talent and Conrad Burns) will be even more inclined than usual to "legislate" rather than return to first conservative principles.

More moderate Republicans in both the House and Senate will judge (incorrectly, I believe) that strong Republican support of traditional social values contributed to their downfall in this election. Thus the historic clarity of the Republican Party on these issues central to Republican electoral success is in danger of being weakened in the next few years.

Obviously, President Bush will be radically reduced in his capacity to politically lead congressional Republicans, while 2008 presidential aspirants will emerge to replace him. (And, as he is now obliged to negotiate with Democrats rather than Republicans in Congress, the congressional Republicans will be further alienated from the president.)

If there are two, three or four credible challengers, congressional Republicans will tend to group around each and echo their themes and messages — thus further dividing the unity and diffusing the clarity of the Republican message coming out of Washington. If Sen. McCain (or anyone else) emerges early as the likely 2008 presidential nominee, he will become, de facto, the titular head of the Washington branch of the Republican Party. Because Republicans tend to prefer party order to chaos, there may well be an instinct to get, effectively, the presidential primary process over very quickly — a factor that might redound to Sen. McCain’s favor.

In future columns I will write on the fate of our Iraq policy in a Washington world turned upside down. It won’t be pretty.