The sweeping Democrat victory in the US midterms has significant implications, from the future of the war in Iraq, to the Bush presidency, and the 2008 presidential contest.
With Iraq the principal cause of the electoral rout, pressure on Bush to change course will only build. Any hopes Bush held for a domestic agenda are in tatters. And with control of both Houses of Congress and a majority of governorships, the Democrats are ideally placed for a two-year campaign to recapture the White House.
Karl Rove’s bravado notwithstanding, a Democratic takeover of the house was a certainty. The Democrats have gained 28 seats in the house, giving them a workable majority. Most felt that winning the six senate seats needed for control would prove too hard, but the Democrats accomplished that too, defending all their own seats and snagging Republican held seats in Rhode Island, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Montana and Virginia.
This achievement should not be understated - the Democrats won more senate races in a single year than any party since 1980, winning 24 of the 33 seats up for election. The Democrats also gained six governorships, including the key state of Ohio.
Exit polls confirmed that the Bush administration and its handling of the Iraq war were largely to blame. Six in ten voters disapproved of the war in Iraq, and four in ten voters said they cast their vote against Bush, compared to only half that number who cast it in support.
However, the Republican leadership is also to blame. The scandals surrounding Jack Abramoff, Robert Ney, Duke Cunningham and Tom de Lay, led to the public perception that the Republican Party had grown corrupt. The Foley sex scandal stole crucial air time in the last month of the campaign, and the leadership’s less than forthcoming approach to dealing with it only exacerbated public concern.
So what impact will the new political landscape have?
Americans want a new path in Iraq, but congressional control does not itself provide Democrats with the power to change the direction of the US’s policy in Iraq.
Much has been made of the prospect of John Murtha - an outspoken critic of the war and advocate of bringing US troops home - chairing the House Appropriations Committee, thus controlling the purse strings for the Iraq War. However Democrats are unlikely to adopt the politically risky tactic of threatening to cut-off funding as leverage. Bush could call their bluff and paint the Democrats as not supporting the troops. Rather, the Democrats will use their powerful new positions as committee heads to increase scrutiny and oversight of the conduct of the Iraq War, and their political numbers to apply pressure for change.
A change in the administration’s approach in Iraq will depend more on the president hearing and responding to the message from the American people. The departure of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, suggests the administration is listening. While Rumsfeld is only one of many who must share blame for the Iraq debacle, senior Democrats have an acrimonious relationship with Rumsfeld, and his departure signals Bush’s intent to work with Congress on Iraq.
Domestically, any prospects of Bush’s tax cuts being made permanent, or his social security reform being advanced, are dead. However, Democrats will also have difficulty implementing their agenda.
Many of the newly elected House Democrats are conservative centrist democrats, known as “blue dogs” or less affectionately DINOs (Democrats in Name Only). They are not ideological bedfellows of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and will be running for re-election in two years in moderate or conservative districts. Their votes will moderate the agenda. Moreover, the Republicans can use the Senate filibuster to delay or block passage of legislation through the Senate (it requires 60 senators to prevent this). Finally, Bush can veto legislation - the Democrats are well short of the two thirds majority needed to override a veto.
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