Final roundup on the Democratic victory

In the past day several writers have produced worthwhile post-mortems on the elections that have echoed my concerns about the Democratic victory.

First, at the New Republic website (free registration required), John Judis — who must be happy now that he can return to his “emerging Democratic majority” trope — provides a sober review of the election that suggests that the Democrats benefited in 2006 from “Perot voters”:

In the South, independents tend to be former Democrats who have begun to vote Republican but are unwilling to describe themselves as Republicans. In the North and West, however, they occupy a much more distinct political niche. They include libertarian-minded professionals and small-business owners–especially in the West–and white working-class voters in the Northeast and Midwest. They are equally uncomfortable with the feminist left and the religious right. What they dislike most is government interference in their personal lives. They see Washington as corrupt and want it reformed. They favor balanced budgets but also Social Security and Medicare. They worry about U.S. companies moving their plants to Mexico and about China exporting underpriced goods to the United States. They favor a strong military, but they want it used strictly against foreign aggression.

In the 1980s, these voters generally supported Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; but, in 1992, many of them abandoned Bush for Ross Perot, who received 18.9 percent of the national vote. Perot did well in the West, Midwest, and Northeast, but not in the Deep South. In 1994, two-thirds of Perot voters, disgusted with what they saw as continuing corruption in Washington, backed the Gingrich revolution, accounting for much of the GOP’s success outside the Deep South.

It’s Perot’s variety of anti-globalization — if anti-globalization is the word for it — that characterizes the positions of many members of the new Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. They support a kind of populism at home, populism abroad, that sees the struggle between Main Street and Wall Street as little different than the struggle of the US against foreign countries that supposedly play dirty: Japan in the 1980s, China and the other BRICs today. I doubt these voters would think of using the word “anti-globalization” to describe their positions, and compared to those who proudly wear that label, they’re not. They just want the fair deal they think they deserve individually, and that the US deserves internationally.

While this position sounds innocuous enough, the policies that could result from this sense of insecurity — whether retaliatory tariffs against countries with trade and exchange policies deemed detrimental to theUS or the rejection of bilateral trade agreements that have strategic as well as economic merit and multilateral and regional agreements that could assist development in benighted regions of the world — could devastate the international economic order and effectively cede US leadership to…well, that’s anyone’s guess. (For an example of foreign fears of economic retaliation from the Democratic Congress, see this article in the English edition of South Korea’s largest circulation daily, the Chosun Ilbo.)

So the question is what the Democrats will do to ease the insecurity of their new constituents. As Judis writes, “In this election, the Bush administration’s failure in Iraq and the corruption of the Republican Congress allowed this heterogeneous group to find a temporary home in the Democratic Party. But it will take all the ingenuity and craft that Democrats can muster to turn this halfway house into a permanent residence for a long-term Democratic majority.” Will they build their “permanent” majority by pandering to the fears of these homeless voters, or will they find a way to convince them to “buy in” to globalization, introducing reforms that alleviate their insecurity and convince them that they too can benefit from global economic openness? If they opt for the latter, the Democrats will be doing a great service to the country — something that George Bush’s Republican Party has yet to attempt.

Gerard Baker too suggests, in his column in The Times, that the results of the election hardly provide a clear policy mandate. He wrote:

Republicans lost not because the American people have suddenly seen the wisdom of the collective leadership of the European Union or the editorial pages of the world’s press but because they deserved to lose.

When you foul up as comprehensively as this Administration and Congress have done for six years you need to spend a period of time contemplating politics from the other side. The recent debate on these pages about whether Iraq was a bad idea in origin or just badly executed has been entertaining but jejeune from a political standpoint. It is literally impossible to know whether it was misconceived because what is absolutely certain is that is has been almost miraculously mismanaged from the moment Baghdad fell.

When you throw in “Heckuva Job” Katrina and a Congress that has devoted most of its time to enriching itself at the expense of every principle and value it was supposed to hold dear, you wonder why anyone even doubted that the good common sense of Americans would demand a change.

And how. It seems that all that mattered this year was that the candidate had a “D” next to his or her name on the ballot.

Baker ends with a note of doubt, however, suggesting that the (James) Baker survey on Iraq due in several weeks could, combined with the new Democratic majorities, spell the end of the line for the Bush administration’s revolutionary project to transform the Greater Middle East.

Meanwhile, in the FT, former Harvard President Lawrence Summers suggests that previous “repudiation elections” in which the opposition parties made significant gains as voters rejected the sitting president’s policies may provide a guide to the next two years in American politics. Summers too concludes that there is no clear way forward regarding domestic and foreign policies. He expects that both sides will be maneuvering to the center, with neither party getting everything that it wants. Bush may actually have to use the veto pen, or else make real efforts to compromise with the opposition.

The American political system will likely benefit from the change. One benefit may be that by no longer being locked out of power, the Democrats could shed the poisonous anti-Bush rhetoric that has characterized their past six years in the wilderness.

In any case, the only clear conclusion that can be drawn from this election is that the American electorate punished the Republican Party for a series of policy failures and for the shameless corruption of congressional Republicans. What the new majority will mean in terms of policy will remain largely unknown until next year.

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