Was the November 2006 midterm election an epic political massacre or just a routine midterm brawl? In the week after the Democratic victory, partisan spinmeisters offered opinions as contradictory as those of the protagonists in Rashomon, Kurosawaâ€™s famously relativistic account of rape and murder. On the liberal side, Bob Herbert rejoiced in his New York Times column that the â€˜fear-induced anomalyâ€™ of the â€˜George W. Bush eraâ€™ had â€˜all but breathed its lastâ€™, while Paul Waldman (Baltimore Sun) announced â€˜a big step in the nationâ€™s march to the leftâ€™, and George Lakoff (CommonDreams.org) celebrated a victory for â€˜progressive valuesâ€™ and â€˜factually accurate, values-based framingâ€™ (whatever that may mean).  On the conservative side, the National Reviewâ€™s Lawrence Kudlow refused to concede even the obvious bloodstains on the steps of Congress: â€˜Look at Blue Dog conservative Democratic victories and look at Northeast liberal gop defeats. The changeover in the House may well be a conservative victory, not a liberal one.â€™ William Safire, although disgusted that the â€˜loser leftâ€™ had finally won an election, dismissed the result as an â€˜average midterm lossâ€™. 
I. VICTORY AND ITS WOES
But Safire doth spin too much. Although the Democratic victory in 2006 was not quite the deluge that the Republicans led by Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey and Tom DeLay unleashed in 1994 (see Table 1), it was anything but an â€˜averageâ€™ result. Despite the comparatively low electoral salience of the economy, the oppositionâ€™s classic midterm issue, the Democrats managed to exactly reverse the majority in the House (the worst massacre of Republicans since 1974) and reclaim the Senate by one seat. Indeed, the Senate gained its first self-declared â€˜socialistâ€™, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.
Democrats, for the first time ever, did not lose a single incumbent or open House seat. Independent voters (26 per cent of the electorate) swung to the Democrats by an almost two-to-one ratioâ€”â€˜the biggest margin ever measured among independents since the first exit polls in 1976â€™.  With the strongest female leadership in American history, they outpolled Republicans among women 55 to 45 per cent in House races; but more surprisingly, they also managed to reduce the gopâ€™s famous lead among white men (a staggering 63 per cent in the 1994 House contests) to 53 per cent.  According to veteran pollster Stanley Greenberg, one out of five Bush voters moved into the blue column; but none so dramatically as the electoral market segment of â€˜privileged menâ€™ (college-educated and affluent) where the gopâ€™s 2004 margin of 14 per cent was transformed into a slim Democratic majority. Although the slippage among the gop hardcoreâ€”evangelicals and white rural and exurban votersâ€”was slight, the party of the moral majority declined 6 per cent among devout Catholics, while angry Latinos, recoiling from the gop grass rootsâ€™ embrace of vigilantes and border walls, murdered Republicans in several otherwise close contests in the West. 
In state races, the Democrats demonstrated even more traction. On election eve, the gop boasted a majority of governorships (28 to 22) and a slight lead in control of state legislative chambers (49 to 47, with 2 tied).  Contrasted to overwhelming Democratic dominance in state legislatures before 1994, when Republicans controlled only 8 states, this rough parityâ€”according to John Hood, the president of a North Carolina conservative think-tankâ€”has been â€˜one of the most significant and lasting products of the Republican Revolutionâ€™. But it is a legacy now lost as the Democrats have exactly reversed the partisan ratio of governors (leaving Republican executives in only 3 of the 10 most populous states), while winning control of 8 more state chambers (now 56 Democrat versus 41 Republican, with 1 tied). â€˜Whatâ€™s worse for the gopâ€™, Hood points out, is that the majority parties in state legislatures will control congressional redistricting in the wake of the rapidly approaching 2010 Census. â€˜If Democrats retain their current edge, the us House will get a lot more blue.â€™ 
Regionally, Republican candidates were decimated in the gopâ€™s original heartland, New Englandâ€”including notoriously conservative New Hampshire, where Democrats took over the legislature for the first time since the Civil Warâ€”and the Mid-Atlantic states, leading one prominent conservative to lament that â€˜the Northeast is on its way to being lost forever to the gopâ€™.  Democrats also made surprising gains in the Midwest and the â€˜redâ€™ interior West, especially in
Such results convincingly refute the legend of invincibility that had been woven around Karl Roveâ€™s signature strategy of intensive base mobilization (usually stimulated by hysteria over some imperilled Christian value) and massive negative advertising (usually perpetuating some outright lie or slander against the opposition). According to Stanley Greenberg, â€˜the Republican Party has ended up with the most negative image in memory, lower than Watergateâ€™. But the Democratic pollster (writing in collaboration with Robert Borosage and James Carville) was adamant that Republican losses are not necessarily Democratic gains. â€˜The Democratic Party also ended up being viewed more negatively during this election than in 2004 . . . Democrats have only modest advantagesâ€”and are chosen by fewer than 50 per cent on such key attributes as being â€œon your sideâ€, â€œfuture-orientedâ€ and â€œfor familiesâ€.â€™ 
Thomas Edsall agrees that â€˜Democratic triumphs are fragileâ€™ and warns that they are â€˜based far more on widespread dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq than on the fundamental partisan and ideological shift that was apparent in 1980 and 1994 Republican breakthroughsâ€™.  Partisan registration remains closer to parity (38 per cent Democrat versus 37 per cent Republican) than at any time since the late nineteenth century, and control of the House is arbitrated by swings of just a few percentage points: the reason the Republicans have been so keen to undertake controversial midterm redistrictings and gerrymanders to buttress their power. 
The victors, moreover, share no consensus about the direction of their party. In contrast to 1994, when the gop was rapturously united around the programme of its congressional â€˜revolutionâ€™, Democratic ideologues at the end of 2006 were fundamentally split. While progressives like Ezra Klein (American Prospect) fretted that Blue Dogs and dlc-ers were ready â€˜to lock liberals out of the halls of powerâ€™, Christopher Hayes (Nation) applauded the â€˜new Democratic populismâ€™, and Michael Tomasky (American Prospect editor) argued that the party was cleverly moving to the centre and to the left simultaneously (â€˜the party managed to sustain this leftâ€“centre coalition and render the distinctions between the two groups less importantâ€™).  Hillary Clinton and her chorus of sycophantic voices boasted of the miracle of the â€˜vital, dynamic centreâ€™, while other Democrats pessimistically agreed with Safireâ€™s acid prediction that the party was headed towards civil war.
In any event, the Democrats led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have two years to consolidate their enhanced electoral support and effectively arm Hillary Clinton for a very nasty brawl with either John McCain or Rudy Giuliani in 2008.  (Neither of the two mystery phenomenaâ€”Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Barack Obamaâ€”are likely to survive the brutal scrutiny of the presidential primaries, although they may be recycled as vice-presidential timber.)  The 110th Congress will give the Democrats extraordinary opportunities to repeal the reactionary agendas established in 1994 by the â€˜Republican Revolutionâ€™ and in 2001â€“02 by the â€˜War on Terrorismâ€™. But the Democrats will be torn between two categorical imperatives: on the one hand, to sink as many Republicans as possible with George Bushâ€™s ship of state; and, on the other hand, to reclaim the mystic â€˜centreâ€™ and the support of corporate lobbyists. If the recent past is any guide, a seriously populist and ideologically combative Democratic politics is totally incompatible with the Clintonite project of making the Democrats the representatives par excellence of the knowledge economy and corporate globalization.
More specifically, the new Democratic majority must test its ambiguous promises of crusading populism and inclusive centrism against the recalcitrant realities of the four mega-issues that will inevitably dominate the new Congress: (1) the Iraq fiasco and the War on Terrorism; (2) the legacy of Republican congressional corruption and corporate fraud; (3) urgent, unmet social needs (including the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast) in the context of the huge Bush deficits; and (4) the growing unrest over the social costs of economic globalization. In each case, the hopeful expectations of last Novemberâ€™s voters for real changes in Washington are likely to be betrayed by the higher imperatives of electing Hillary and assuaging big business.
II. SMALLER OR BIGGER WAR
Unlike the 2004 presidential election and the controversy over the importance of â€˜values votersâ€™, there was nothing equivocal about the key issue that mobilized a majority of voters in November 2006. With the housing-bubble economy still puttering along (although a real-estate-induced recession may not be far away), and with Mexican- and gay-bashing failing to ignite significant national backlashes, the defining issue was the looming defeat of the us intervention in
Six out of ten voters told pollsters that they were upset at Bushâ€™s management of the warâ€”the spiralling carnage in Baghdad and the paralysis in the White Houseâ€”and had voted accordingly. Editorial page punditry, likewise, was united with exit-poll surveys in agreeing that
After twelve years of arrogant majority rule in Congress, the gop has seemingly foundered on the contradictions of the new imperialism. Or has it? The irony of the anti-war vote, of course, was that it elected Democrats who are under no obligation to actually end the barbarous us occupation. Writing shortly after the election, Tom Hayden praised the citizen groups in Chicago and elsewhere who had fought to make the election a plebiscite on an increasingly unpopular war, but warned presciently that â€˜neither party is prepared to accept that the war is a lost causeâ€™ and that the Iraq Study Group report would offer the Democratic leadership common ground with congressional Republicans â€˜to eliminate â€œimmediate withdrawalâ€ as an optionâ€™. 
Despite majority public belief that Iraq is a â€˜bad warâ€™ and the troops should come home, the current Democratic strategy is to snipe from the sidelines at Bushâ€™s ruinous policies while avoiding any decisive steps to actually end the occupation. Indeed, from the standpoint of cold political calculus, the Democrats have no more interest in helping Bush extract himself from the morass of
The real Democratic opposition to the war (John Murthaâ€™s highly publicized defection aside) has come from the ranks of the Black Caucus, whose membersâ€”including John Lewis, Charles Rangel and Barbara Leeâ€”are also the chief instigators of the recently organized Out of Iraq Caucus, chaired by Los Angelesâ€™s fiery Maxine Waters. The substantial overlap between the anti-war caucus (which also includes ten or so Latino representatives led by New Yorkâ€™s outspoken JosÃ© Serrano) and the House membership most strongly committed to urban social programmes is expressive of a fundamental political trend that the media has all but ignored: the widespread consciousness in communities of colour that the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan (costing more than $2 billion per week) are stealing critical resources from human needs in poorer inner cities and older suburbs, as well as putting immigrant communities under the shadow of disloyalty.
This new equation between urban needs, immigrant civil rights and anti-imperialism could become a potent counter-agenda in American politics if it were reinforced by grass-roots activism and consistent protest. But here is the rub. Although the Out of Iraq Caucus has grown to 74 members (more than one-fifth of Democratic House membership) in the wake of the November vote, its clout is considerably diminished by the absence of a national anti-war movement, as well as by the failure of the major progressive trade unions such as seiu, here-unite and the aft to make withdrawal a political priority.
Indeed the electoral landscape in November was shaped by the central paradox of soaring anti-war sentiment without a visible anti-war movement. In contrast to 1968 and 1972â€”or even, for that matter, 1916 and 1938â€”voter opposition to intervention overseas was not buttressed by an organized peace movement capable of holding politiciansâ€™ feet to the fire or linking opposition to the war to a deeper critique of foreign policy (in this case, the War on Terrorism). The broad, spontaneous anti-war movement of winter 2003â€”whose grass-roots energy filled the void of Democratic opposition to Bushâ€™s invasionâ€”was first absorbed by the Dean campaign in spring 2004 and then politically dissolved into the Kerry candidacy. The 2004 Democratic Convention, which should have been a forum for wide-ranging attacks on Republican foreign and domestic policies, was transformed into an obnoxious patriotic celebration of John Kerry as the Brahmin Rambo.
Although many activists hoped that an autonomous peace movement would re-emerge from the ruins of the Kerry campaign, there have been only a few regional pockets of sustained protest. One of Howard Deanâ€™s principal assignments as national Democratic chair (and the major reason for his selection) has been to keep anti-war forces immobilized within a diffuse and hypocritical Anybody But Bush coalition. By making Bush and his political parents Cheney and Rumsfeld the paramount issues, Democratic sophistry has avoided a real debate on
Indeed the Democratic leadershipâ€”the Black Caucus and a few notable progressives asideâ€”has exploited domestic resentment against Bush policies in
The Democratic leadership likewise has deliberately avoided a debate on the constitutional implications of the Patriot Act; not a single prominent Democrat has proposed the straightforward rollback of the totalitarian powers claimed by the presidency since 9/11. Indeed Hillary Clinton has signalled that she favours imprisonment without trial and even the use of torture in certain circumstances. Speaker Pelosi, meanwhile, has emphasized that the chief Democratic goals in the 110th Congress will be, first, to pick the uncontroversial, low-hanging fruit of mainstream reform (minimum wage, prescriptions, student loans and so on), then move quickly to pass an â€˜innovation agendaâ€™ for hi-tech industries. Foreign policy debates in the Houseâ€”thanks to the hawkish counterweight of more than 100 New Democrats and Blue Dogsâ€”will not reach beyond the bipartisan assumptions of the Bakerâ€“Hamilton Plan or whatever new, coercive strategy for Palestinian national self-liquidation is proposed by Condoleezza Rice.
What then has the anti-war vote actually won? At the end of the day, public disillusionment with the messianic politics of the neo-Conservatives has paved the way for a â€˜Realistâ€™ restoration under the aegis of the Bakerâ€“Hamilton plan that reconciles the foreign-policy establishments of Bush Senior and Clinton. The bloodbath in
The silver lining, if it exists, is that the Democrats in Congress, with the Black Caucus and its allies lobbying for withdrawal, are more likely to be swayed by public anger as insurgency and civil war in
If Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates sanction this ultimate escalation, they have a good chance of bringing some macho Democrats aboard (although they will almost certainly lose some leading Republicans). Senate leader Harry Reid has already demonstrated his epic confusion by endorsing and then quickly retracting support for the proposed â€˜surgeâ€™ of 35,000 more us troops into
What stance Pelosi and Reid ultimately assume, and how hard they actually push for the â€˜phased withdrawalâ€™ proposed in their six-plank November programme, will be largely determined by the resurgenceâ€”or notâ€”of the anti-war movement. Last Novemberâ€™s voters certainly had fewer illusions than their candidates about the hopelessness of the situation (according to exit polls, â€˜only about one in five voters say they think that either the President or the Democrats have a clear plan for
III. THE LIMITS OF INQUIRY
One of the most savoury moments of the November vote was the election of Nick Lampson to Tom DeLayâ€™s old seat in the 22nd District of Texas. Lampsonâ€”a school teacher who was formerly the Democratic congressman from Galvestonâ€”had been one of the principal victims of DeLayâ€™s infamous 2003 redistricting of Texas: an unprecedented mid-decade gerrymander that was made possible by the massive and illegally laundered corporate donations that the House Majority Leader had deployed to elect a Republican majority in the Texas Legislature the year before. Thanks to the courage of a local grand jury and
DeLay, of course, was the Robespierre of the 1994 â€˜Republican Revolutionâ€™, perhaps the most ruthless crusader for one-party government in us history. As one of the co-founders of the so-called â€˜K Street Projectâ€™,  along with Rick Santorum and Grover Norquist, he was notorious for coercing huge campaign contributions from corporate lobbyists (as well as promises to hire only Republicans) in exchange for allowing them to directly write gop legislation. As Majority Leader (or â€˜Hammerâ€™ as he was known to Republicans as well as Democrats), he imposed unprecedented ideological discipline on the gop (even defying a White House attempt to give a small tax break to low-income families) while slashing at every vestige of bipartisanship and collegial civility. In partnership with the infamous Abramoff, he was also the advocate of the sleaziest causes in the Capitol, ranging from support for indentured labour in the sweatshop paradise of the Northern Marianas (a us territory without the protection of us labour laws) to under-the-table favours for a giant Russian corporation that in turn kicked back money to DeLay-related causes. 
After more than a decade of being roadkill in the wake of DeLayâ€™s sleaze-financed campaign juggernaut (with Karl Rove as hit-and-run driver), the Democrats now have the opportunity to begin to roll back the Republican Revolutionâ€”which is to say, to break up the corrupt flows of money and power personified by DeLay and the K Street Project. Congress, of course, has always been about â€˜pay to playâ€™ and the lubrication of politics by lobbyists, but never before 1994 had the Republicans employed such stark coercion to impose themselves as the obligatory rather than simply the natural party of business. (In part, this was a reaction to Democratic successes in attracting support from bicoastal, new-economy sectors like entertainment, media, software, bio-tech and gaming.)
The exhilarating promise of the November victory is that a cadre of veteran liberal Democratsâ€”Charles Rangel (Ways and Means), Barney Frank (Financial Services), Henry Waxman (Government Reform), David Obey (Appropriations), Ike Skelton (Armed Forces), and John Rockefeller iv (Senate Intelligence Committee)â€”will use their hard-won committee chairmanships to mount sweeping inquisitions of the Himalayan corruption and collusion of the DeLay years. With subpoena power finally in the hands of the opposition, the interlocking special interests that dominate the Bush administration will face the comprehensive exposure and accounting that they managed to elude in the aftermath of the Enron scandal. Indeed, as the skeletons come tumbling out of the Republican closet, and the public realizes how vast the extent of graft and fraud in the occupation of Iraq, the non-reconstruction of New Orleans, â€˜homeland securityâ€™ boondoggles like the phony Bioshield programme, and the subsidization of the insurance, pharmaceutical and oil industriesâ€”then voters will overwhelmingly endorse a new regime of government oversight, renewed environmental and health-and-safety regulation, and serious campaign finance reform.
This is the real opportunity to which the Democrats could rise in theory, but there is little chance that their leadership will actually allow congressional probes to follow money and corruption all the way upstream. Progressive hopes that Congress might return to the heroic days of Thurman Arnoldâ€™s anti-trust investigations of the late 1930s, or the Watergate Committeeâ€™s exposÃ©s of Republican law-breaking in the 1970s, are pipe dreams in face of Pelosiâ€™s insistence that Democratic watchdogs be tightly leashed, in the interests of building â€˜centrismâ€™. She has already extracted humiliating loyalty oaths from the two senior Black Democrats most likely to rock the bipartisan boat: forcing John Conyers (chair of the Judiciary Committee) to recant his advocacy of impeachment (â€˜the country does not want or need any more paralysed partisan governmentâ€™, he said recently) and making Charles Rangel, who has hammered Dick Cheney like no one else in Congress, sing a chorus or two of the company song (â€˜I have to take a leadership viewâ€™, he promised).  Even more diabolically, she has put Henry Waxman (â€˜White House Enemy No. 1â€™) in charge of ensuring (in the words of analyst Brian Friel) that congressional oversight does not â€˜open Democrats up to charges of obstructionism and extremism in the next campaign cycleâ€™. 
In the absence of relentless pressure from labour and environmental groups, the Democrats are unlikely to discomfort powerful business interests that they would otherwise delight in wooing away from the Republicans. Certainly there will be some reckoning with Halliburton and contract fraud in Iraq, and perhaps the perjury trial of Scooter Libby (Cheneyâ€™s indicted chief of staff) will be spiced with new revelations from Rockefeller and his Senate Intelligence Committee about the administrationâ€™s lies and fabricated evidence on the road to Baghdad; but a widening circle of exposure will meet increasing resistance, not simply from Republicans fighting for their lives, but from Democrats trying to protect their renewed ties to the very corporate groups at the core of corruption and scandal. The opportunity to expose and reform will be counter-balanced at each step by the temptation to make deals and collect campaign contributions. As the Economist cynically but accurately put it, â€˜the new house chieftains do not see themselves as revolutionaries. Their goal, after all, is not to enact a specific agenda, but to prepare the ground for the presidential election of 2008.â€™ 
Because corporate lobbyists are scared of the subpoena power wielded by Rangel and Waxman (however constrained by Pelosi), they will happily seek refuge in Democratic campaign committees. The fusion between Corporate America and the Republican Party appears less permanent and unassailable than it did a year ago and, as BusinessWeek predicted shortly after the election, â€˜companies will be rushing to stock up on lobbyists with Democratic credentialsâ€™.  The Democratic leadership, for its part, is brazenly cruising for cash. The next election cycle will be the most expensive in history, and Hillary Clinton is unlikely to relish congressional hearings into the crimes of the pharmaceutical, oil and military-construction industries that could unleash massive corporate retaliation against her in 2008. From a strategic perspective, it makes far more sense for the Democrats to concentrate congressional exposÃ©s on a handful of Administration villains, while quietly rebuilding parity of representation on
As BusinessWeek reassured nervous readers, any tendency toward populist excess in the new Congress would be counteracted by the millionaires, corporate lawyers and hi-tech entrepreneurs in the ranks of Democracy itself, especially the fervently pro-business New Democrat Coalition (the House arm of the Democratic Leadership Council) chaired by Rep. Ellen Tauscher of California. â€˜In a narrowly divided Democratic House, Tauscherâ€™s band of about 40 economic moderates would wield extraordinary power to influence tax, trade and budget policy.â€™ Moreover, ceos worried about possible indictment or evil corporations fearful of losing their lucrative federal contracts could always appeal to
Beyond the uncontroversial agenda of the â€˜100 hoursâ€™, few of the promised reforms that have attracted progressive voters to the Democrats are likely to make any headway against the coming hurricane of corporate lobbying and political fundraising organized by Crawford and other Democratic insiders. Energy policy, for example, has been one of the partyâ€™s highest-profile issues, and Senator Barbara Boxer (new chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee) has rallied a broad coalition of environmentalists around tough emissions and fuel economy standards for automobiles. But as journalist Richard Simon recently reported in the Los Angeles Times, the
The â€˜understanding Democratsâ€™ in the 110th Congress will include senators from energy-exporting states, such as Mary Landrieu (Louisiana) and Jeff Bingaman (New Mexico), as well as the powerful chair of the House Energy Committee, John Dingell (Michigan), who will fight to defend every last molecule of carbon dioxide emitted by a Ford Explorer or Chevy Suburban. Nancy Pelosi may take away some of the oil industryâ€™s more outrageous tax breaks, but Barbara Boxer will never take away rich Americansâ€™ suvs or reduce their dependence on foreign oil. No matter how many millions of people may be terrified by global warmingâ€™s â€˜inconvenient truthâ€™, there will always be Democrats to help filibuster any cap on greenhouse emissions or vote to preserve the oil industryâ€™s special entitlements.
IV. DEFICITS AND DOG POUNDS
In contrast to most European parliamentary systems, the American party system is only partially â€˜nationalizedâ€™, and regional and local agendas preserve exceptional salience in the operation of Congress. The 2006 election is a spectacular case in point: whether or not the electorate actually shifted left, congressional cloutâ€”in one of the most dramatic geographical power-shifts in memoryâ€”moved back to the Blue coasts.
But the Democrats will have to fight themselves, and not just Republicans, if they want to reverse the relative decline of federal expenditure, especially in the ageing cities of the Bluest states. While the new Congressional leadership, especially Pelosi and Clinton, have individually lobbied with great ferocity for their own districtsâ€™ and statesâ€™ needs, they have collectively tied the partyâ€™s hands with a cargo-cultish commitment to deficit reduction and fiscal frugality. Although
Despite claims in the Nation and elsewhere that the Democrats are now channelling their â€˜inner populistâ€™, the party remains completely in thrall to â€˜Rubinomicsâ€™â€”the fervent emphasis on budgetary discipline rather than social spending that characterized the reign of former Goldman Sachs ceo Robert Rubin as Clintonâ€™s Secretary of the Treasury. In practice, this translates not simply into a Democratic reluctance to undertake new spending, but also a refusal to debate the rollback of any of Bushâ€™s $1 trillion in tax cuts for the affluent. â€˜Tax and spend, tax and spend, tax and spendâ€™, Senator Kent Conrad (chair of the Budget Committee) told the New York Times, â€˜weâ€™re not going thereâ€™.  The president can give away the Treasury to the super-rich and run up colossal debts as he invades the world, but the Democrats are now sworn to a path of anti-Keynesian rectitude that would have made Calvin Coolidge blush.
Indeed Congressâ€™s most â€˜rabid budget-balancersâ€™ (this is the official description on their website) are the Blue Dogs, a caucus of conservative Democrats organized in 1995 in jealous emulation of Gingrichâ€™s Republicans. Hailing mainly from rapidly growing smaller cities and exurbs such as