San Diego Union Tribune

November 9, 2006

Election gives Bush, Democrats second chance


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,” Goeas said.


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,” Molyneux said.

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 the public.

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.”

Copley News Service correspondent Otto Kreisher contributed to this report.

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