So how should Democrats interpret last night's victories? Not as the broad mandate for liberalism that many of them would hope it to be.
Chiefly, Barack Obama ran most effectively as a moderate Republican. While he had plenty of big-money, liberal proposals (such as expanding healthcare), the candidate downplayed them after a few forays showed push-back. Instead, Obama gained traction by consistently emphasizing tax and spending cuts. There was a good deal of class warfare in there too, but the theme that most endured was cuts for 95 percent of taxpayers, not increases for the other 5 percent.
Given that voters overwhelmingly indicated the economy was their top issue, Republicans should take heart that Obama's mandate is what should be GOP turf. Where Republicans lost was on the trust factor: Independents drifted to Obama, and conservatives lost faith. Too many Republicans have talked about "the good folks back home" and lower spending, but the headlines show institutionalized corruption and ridiculous bridges to nowhere.
If independents voted for Obama because of tax cuts and balanced budgets, that means they remain essentially center-right. The GOP should spend the next four years shoring up its base. This means repudiating the Bush version of conservatism, characterized by astronomical spending, narrowly defined tax cuts, and a patronizing belief that all will be forgiven with a few sops thrown to the religious right.
Republicans are facing the reality that they have misgoverned for the better part of a decade. And while liberals must be tempted to believe they have four years of Christmas ahead, they will tax and spend at their own peril.