The great virtue of democratic governance is its ability to hold accountable those who err in public office. Voters held Republicans accountable with a vengeance in the midterm elections, for their failures in Congress and for President Bush’s bogged-down war in Iraq.
We will now see whether divided government offers any improvement, or makes things worse. A lame-duck president and the new Democratic Congress face a stern test. Can they work together in the national interest at a time of peril for the United States? If they don’t, history’s judgment will be harsh and the next voters’ verdict awaits in 2008.
A clearly chastened President Bush called the election results a "thumpin’," which they obviously were. House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Reid will be bitter medicine for a congressional GOP that went astray — on spending, ethics and a forgotten reform agenda — and paid the price. An opposition Congress with the potential to make Bush’s life miserable for the last two years of his presidency is his reward for the unresolved mess in Iraq.
Beyond the many House and Senate Republicans who lost their seats Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and House Speaker Dennis Hastert were immediate casualties, too, and rightly so.
Rumsfeld, an occasional visionary but stubbornly flawed, is the architect of the badly botched military campaign in Iraq. That and his brusque persona — critics call it arrogance — have long since made him a lightening rod for criticism of the Iraq misadventure. His departure was inevitable, and overdue.
Hastert, the avuncular and lax overseer of Republican fecklessness and excess in the House, did his party a favor by announcing that he won’t seek the minority leader’s job. Hastert knows that congressional Republicans need new leadership. That’s already guaranteed in the Senate, where Bill Frist is leaving (seemingly for a hopeless presidential quest) and the appropriately tough Mitch McConnell will lead the 49-member Republican minority.
As for bipartisanship, the recent past is full of ill omens even as the president and his tormentors offer conciliatory gestures.
To his credit, President Bush faced defeat forthrightly. At his post-election press conference, Bush acknowledged the magnitude of Republican losses, announced Rumsfeld’s departure and admitted that his Iraq policy needs reassessment. He also held out a conciliatory hand to Pelosi and the Democrats and asked for bipartisan cooperation in a search for "common ground."
Given Pelosi’s incessant savaging of Bush and the Republicans as dishonest, corrupt, incompetent and dangerous, the president’s words were commendably statesmanlike, all the more so in the immediate wake of a painfully bruising defeat.
Pelosi returned the favor by saying that Democrats also were interested in bipartisan cooperation. Then she joined Bush for what must have been a strained private lunch at the White House.
Skeptics should be forgiven for wondering how long this reverie of bipartisanship can last.
Bush won a measure of bipartisan support during his first term for tax cuts, education reform, prescription drug benefits, counterterrorism measures and (it’s worth recalling) the war in Iraq. But since then, the president has proved an increasingly polarizing figure, relying more and more for his governing authority on the Republican base.
For Pelosi and the Democrats, bipartisanship hardly describes their demeanor in recent years. Frustrated by their minority status and driven by their zealously liberal-left base, Democrats turned to unrelenting Bush bashing as the centerpiece of their strategy. They’ve just won a resounding midterm victory by relentlessly exploiting Bush’s unpopularity and the stalled war in Iraq.
Can these same Democrats now pivot through an about-face and make common cause compromising with a president so many of them have so roundly reviled? Can bipartisanship prevail while both parties posture and position themselves for a wide-open presidential election in 2008?
The odds aren’t encouraging.
Still, Pelosi is shrewd enough to judge that Democrats would best serve their own interests, in 2008 and beyond, by showing the country that they can work with Bush. That would reassure voters that Democrats can move toward the center and govern responsibly.
But first, Pelosi in particular would have to restrain a ferociously liberal Democratic caucus. For all the buzz about a new crop of moderate and even conservative Democrats elected Tuesday, the existing Democratic caucuses in the House and Senate are overwhelmingly liberal. The Democrats poised to take committee chairmanships, especially in the House, are mostly liberal partisans itching for retribution against the Bush administration.
Meanwhile, of course, America is at war in Iraq, Afghanistan and against a global terrorist enemy dedicated to killing us. On Iraq, there are no easy options. Bush will need bipartisan support for any new strategy that could avert a disastrous defeat. If Democrats in Congress withhold that support, they’ll share responsibility for the consequences.
Pelosi and Reid presumably know that their midterm victory was less an endorsement of agenda-lite Democrats than a repudiation of Republicans. The same restive voters who fired the Republicans are waiting to see if the Democrats can act responsibly in the national interest. If not, accountability awaits just two years hence.