WASHINGTON – Not since he
entered office on the short end of the popular vote and under the
cloud of the Florida recount has President Bush faced a political
challenge equal to the one he confronts now that voters have taken
control of Congress away from the Republicans.
And not since they controlled the White House and both houses
of Congress in 1993 have the Democrats faced a greater opportunity
to demonstrate their governing skills to skeptics.
Neither Bush nor the Democrats displayed much sure-footedness
in responding back then. The president acted as if he had a
mandate in 2001 and steered a hard-right course in his policies,
forever alienating many moderates and polarizing the nation.
Democrats had responded similarly to their electoral good fortune
in 1993, overreaching and pushing a hard-left course that turned
off the electorate.
Now, after voters returned a divided government to Washington,
both Bush and the Democrats get a second chance to get it right.
In the wake of Tuesday's election, both are saying the right
words and paying homage to bipartisan cooperation. The nation got
its first glimpse yesterday of a seemingly chastened Bush on the
day after his party took what he called a “thumping” from
Democrats. In defeat, Bush was gracious and realistic about the
roadblocks placed in front of him now that the opposition controls
the legislative agenda and can wield subpoenas at will.
In return, soon-to-be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pledged to
work with Republicans.
But the two leaders have a long way to go to forge a working
relationship. And after his party's loss, the bigger burden is on
the president to change. Most damaging to Bush with many voters is
what Republican pollster Ed Goeas calls the president's “it's my
way or the highway” image.
“If there is one thing he has to address, it is exactly that,”
Democratic pollster Doug Schoen said Bush must radically change
his governing style and return to his Texas roots. “If George Bush
does not decide to govern from the center, govern as a
compassionate conservative and govern the way he ran Texas, his
presidency will be effectively finished,” Schoen said.
Guy Molyneux, another Democratic pollster, suggested that the
president would do well to emulate Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's
comeback model for governing by making deals with Democrats on
issues of importance to voters.
“I think the president's only option is to show that he's
willing to compromise and to show that he respects reality,”
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for
Politics, said Bush is at a crucial crossroads. “He can be a
rhetorical president who tries to build popularity by bashing
Congress. Or he can decide to return to his earliest model of
leadership in Texas with a Democratic state legislature and
actually get some things done,” said Sabato. “It's one or the
other. It's up to him.”
If he is lucky, of course, the Democrats could bail him out by
overreaching. That happened to Republicans when they won the
Congress in 1946 and dedicated themselves to investigating and
blocking President Harry Truman. And it happened to Republicans
after they took over in 1994 and hurled a flurry of subpoenas at
the Clinton White House, culminating in an impeachment unwanted by
In 1946, Republican Speaker Joe Martin famously promised “to
open every session with a prayer and close with a probe” of
Truman. But this misread the public mood and Republicans lost the
Congress in 1948, said Sam Popkin, professor of political science
at the University of California San Diego.
“Are you out for revenge or reform? It is going to be hard for
these guys to forget they are not just getting even with the
Republicans,” Popkin said.
The overreaching in 1946 and 1994 were fueled by the mistaken
beliefs that the incumbent president was mortally wounded and that
the public had given a mandate to the opposition party.
Signs of both were evident in the immediate wake of Tuesday's
outcome. Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn Political
Action, gave voice to the views of many liberal activists when he
said, “This election spells the end of the Bush era.”
Pressure for a wave of liberal legislation has started building
from Iraq war foes and organized labor.
“We are counting on this new slate of leaders to help workers,
just as we helped them achieve so many great victories,” said
Gerald McEntee, head of AFSCME, a giant union representing state
and local government workers.
Pelosi is being advised to resist this pressure.
“If the Democrats think this is a mandate, boy, they are
crazy,” said Charlie Cook, an independent political analyst.
“Midterm elections are about punishing. People are driven by anger
– anger and/or fear.”
Service correspondent Otto Kreisher contributed to this report.