The Washington Times

When people look back on the 2006 elections 10 years later, what will they see? A turning point ushering in a new era of Democratic congressional dominance? Or an Iraq-induced bump in the otherwise smooth road of Republican dominance that reflects the center-right character of the American electorate?    

Anybody who claims to know the answer to these questions is just guessing, extrapolating the future from certain aspects of the present. I can point you to analyses demonstrating that the future belongs to the Democrats, based on their newfound strength among working-class white men and the under-30 crowd. I can also point you to analyses showing that Republicans are likely soon to regain a narrow House majority now that Democrats will be accountable for a legislative agenda too left-leaning for many of the congressional districts they picked up in 2006.    

There are two main categories of problems with such projections. The first is that they are mainly the product of wishful thinking on the part of their respective partisans. Democrats look at the exit poll results from 2006 and see they made gains in category after category. What they tend to see is a new floor for their support: They take their 2006 showing more or less as a given and make plans to build on it in the next election cycle.    

Republicans, on the other hand, look at the same numbers and see a new ceiling for Democrats. In this scenario, the 2006 results were the best the Democrats could do when they had everything going for them. If Democrats didn’t win it in 2006, they aren’t going to. The possibility of further gains absent the anti-Bush, anti-Iraq backdrop would be negligible.    

As it happens, I think both of these extrapolations are wrong on the merits. It strikes me as more plausible than not that the 2006 results represent a high-water mark for Democrats, not their new baseline. The flood waters are more likely to recede than to keep rising. But that doesn’t mean they will recede to 2004 levels and reinstall a Republican majority. On the contrary, there are still potential gains for Democrats to make in the Senate in 2008, when far more Republican seats are up than Democratic seats.    

But the second category of problems with these projections is the more important one, because it involves even more uncertainty. Here we arrive at the question of how Democrats will govern and what Republicans will say and do in response.    

The difficulties Democrats will face will be formidable. Reconciling the needs of the party’s more moderate Blue Dog coalition with the aspirations of the left-leaning leadership and incoming committee chairmen will require political skills of the first magnitude. When the Republican Party won its majority in 1994, most freshmen felt a sense of personal loyalty and gratitude to the GOP leader, Newt Gingrich. That gave him the buy-in he needed to work matters out among various Republican factions.    

House Republicans in the post-Gingrich era, and especially in the current Congress, coped with the problem of Republicans in marginal districts by feeding the party base with a steady diet of red meat on social issues of the kind Mr. Gingrich was wary of putting front and center. In other words, House Republicans gave their non-Southern, non-evangelical members nothing to work with, and now they’re gone.

If the freshman class of Democrats has feelings for Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi similar to those Republicans had for Mr. Gingrich in 1994, they have gone largely unreported and are not reflected in the decision to reject overwhelmingly her candidate for majority leader, Rep. John Murtha, in favor of the more moderate Rep. Steny Hoyer. It’s a bit hard to say who will really be running the House, because it seems likely that decision-making will be ad hoc and fiercely contested among the key players. The Blue Dogs will be highly disinclined to make nice with the Republican minority, but until they are well enough organized to credibly threaten to do so in order to defend their equities, they may be in for marginalization in the absence of a strong leadership figure capable of defending them. Is Rahm Emanuel that figure?

As for the Senate, 51-49 is more the illusion of control than actual control of the body. The House, as a body in which the majority rules absolutely, moves in blocs; the Senate, with the filibuster, the “hold” on nominations and other such traditional procedures, is a body of networked individuals in which personal relationships matter. They are now in the process of post-election reformation.     

And then there’s the White House. Mr. Bush’s dream of consolidating GOP dominance at the national level has gone poof. His high-stakes policy bets since winning re-election, “staying the course” in Iraq and Social Security reform, haven’t worked out. He now has to weigh what he can achieve in policy terms working with a Democratic Congress against what he can achieve in rebuilding his party by working against it.     

One thing I will predict: It’s going to be fun to watch.