The Political Marketplace Does Its Work

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Apocryphal story: the late Morris Udall, standing up at the podium on election night after finishing second in the fifth presidential primary in a row.

"The people have spoken," he said solemnly. "The bastards."

Thoughts like that may be going through Donald Rumsfeld's mind. Yesterday the Republicans lost their majorities in the House and (provided recounts go the way they seem likely to) the Senate. Today Rumsfeld lost his job. Robert Gates, who served as deputy CIA director during the Carter administration and CIA director in the Bush 41 administration, will be the new defense secretary. Gates is a member of the commission headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton tasked with coming up with new alternatives on Iraq.

I am tempted to say that the Democrats didn't offer much in the way of alternatives during the campaign.

Actually, they offered many alternatives, many of them mutually inconsistent. But that is often the way with opposition parties whose members don't have the responsibility of setting public policy. The voters in any case signaled that they wanted change. The signals were received in the White House. The speed with which George W. Bush responded suggests that he was thinking about and planning for a possible Republican loss all along.

At his press conference Bush also invited Democrats to offer their ideas on "entitlements," i.e., Social Security–the issue on which they refused to deal with him at all in 2005.

Bush seems to be making the same moves as Arnold Schwarzenegger made after the four referendum proposals he supported were defeated in November 2005. Those measures, if enacted, would have struck hard at the power base of the Democratic legislators, who had large majorities. But having lost, Schwarzenegger decided to make deals with the Democrats and to get them to share the responsibility for governance. He hired a top Gray Davis staffer as his chief of staff. He worked with Senate President Don Perata and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez on the budget and on getting support for big bond issues. During much of the fall campaign, they campaigned with him for the bond issues and avoided the company of Democratic nominee Phil Angelides. The result: Schwarzenegger's job rating rose sharply, and he won big.

Bush, of course, is not running again. But I take him at his word when he says that he still wants to accomplish important things. A deal on entitlements would be one such accomplishment. An immigration bill with legalization and guest-worker provisions would be another. Bush backed that, but it was blocked by House Republicans. A Democratic House might well pass it. And, of course, there will be budget negotiations and perhaps budget deals with major policy implications, like the budget-Medicare deal negotiated by Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich in 1997.

Political implications?

Bill Clinton tried to create a natural Democratic majority. He came close–Al Gore and John Kerry got 48 percent of the vote and Democrats never dropped below 200 seats in the House–but fell short. George W. Bush tried to create a natural Republican majority. He seemed to have laid a good foundation for that in the 2004 election. But he, too, has fallen short. Republicans can argue, plausibly, that a crucial number of the Democrats elected yesterday won only because they campaigned as conservatives. And it can be said that both parties' caucuses in Congress have been moved to the right. But that doesn't necessarily work to the benefit of the Republicans.

Over the next two years, Bush seems most likely to attend to policy, while the two parties' presidential nominees will set out their agendas and try to amass constituencies for them. The country is still close to evenly divided along partisan lines, and both sides have an incentive to set agendas that can get the support of majorities larger than those that either Clinton or Bush managed to attract.