Midterms have always been used for voters to express their concerns with the current government and the 2006 midterms were no exception. The healthy state of affairs in Congress – from the Republican Party’s point of view – pre-elections is no longer the case with the Democrats in control of the House (where they will have the first female Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi) and with the support of two Independent Senators, control of the Senate. Congressional committees will be Democrat-dominated and the party will have the ability to steer through legislation, as Congress is the legislative arm of US politics. Will this make President Bush’s last two years in office a period of ‘lame duck’ presidency where he will find it very difficult to steer the government? In her first post-victory briefing, the Speaker-in-waiting, Nancy Pelosi, called for a change in the civilian leadership at the Pentagon. Not long afterwards, Donald Rumsfled, Defence Secretary and close associate of President Bush, resigned. Just days before, President Bush had stated that he wanted Rumsfeld to stay in the post until January 2009.
Why did the voters seemingly turn their back on the Republicans to such an extent that Congress was lost to the Republicans? The elections led to a much higher turnout of voters than was anticipated – seemingly as if many were determined to express their political views at an interesting time in American politics.
Certain topics seem to have been prominent in the initial early analysis of voting patterns.
The war in Iraq was clearly an issue. The war is costing America billions a month and the casualty rates continue to rise with no obvious end in sight. The immediate response to the elections was the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld who was deemed to have been the hawk in the Cabinet and a major supporter for continuing the war in Iraq. Rumsfeld’s quote from Winston Churchill (“I have benefited from criticism and I have not lacked thereof.”) has been interpreted by some commentators that he did not willingly resign. While there have been vocal movements in America to end their involvement in Iraq, there have also been movements to support their role. However, there can be little doubt that America’s continuing participation in Iraq was an issue in this election. In the lead up to the 1992 election, one of President Clinton’s campaign slogans against rival George Bush Snr was “It’s the economy, stupid.” In Britain, “The Independent” had a headline on November 9th, which referred to the election defeat of the Republicans and stated, “It’s the war, stupid.”
Another area that possibly swayed voters was the president himself. It is said that campaign managers within the Republican Party were happy for Laura Bush to support their work publicly, but not for the president. In the aftermath of 09/11 everyone rallied around the president who appeared to speak for the whole nation. Now in 2006 it may seem that the Republican Party sees President Bush as a liability. His stand on stem cell research may have swayed some especially as recent developments in the research no longer require stem cells to be taken from aborted foetuses. What impact the television ad done by Michael J Fox had on the voters is difficult to assess. However, the arguments that followed the ad – whether Fox exaggerated his shakes and the apology he later received – certainly gave the ad far greater prominence across the nation and internationally and would have, at the least, aired the topic more.
The Republican Party was not, this time around, seen as the only party to support family values. Democrat candidates were seen in church with their families and the scandal surrounding Mark Foley, Republican-Florida, with explicit e-mails being sent to boys, did the party no good if it touted its claim to be the party of family values and morality. Though there were many hundreds of Republican candidates who would have had strong family value credentials, the media understandably latched on to the more sordid but sellable stories of unbecoming behaviour and this time around it was the Republican Party that was hit the hardest.
Two initial findings seem to indicate that the voters went for more moderate candidates when put up against more conservative ones. Does this election mean the start of the end of conservatism across America? In Missouri, voters voted to allow stem cell research; in Arizona voters voted against a measure that would have defined marriage as a one-man, one woman institution; in South Dakota voters voted against a measure that would have banned abortion in all circumstances except where the life of the pregnant woman was threatened. However, three states rejected various measures that would have in some part legalised marijuana and Arizona’s voters passed measures that have been criticised for being discriminatory against illegal immigrants. Therefore, it is difficult to state that the era of conservatism is over in America and an era of moderation is being ushered in.
Thomas Mann of Brookings Institution stated:
“This is one of those moments that come along once in a decade in American politics when the public says, ‘We’re mad as hell, we’re not going to take it and we want something different’. The strategies of Rove and the Democratic alternatives pale in comparison to the fact that things are going really bad in Iraq. It’s far more the governance of Bush and the Republican Congress that provided the opportunity for this shift in American politics.”
“The Democrats won it and the Republicans lost it. It was a classic six year election, it was a six-year itch.” Larry Sabato, Professor of Politics, University of Virginia.
Clearly the results have given the Democrats a major boost in the build up to the 2008 presidential campaign. However, they may, ironically, also do the same to the Republican Party that, after licking its wounds, may start to analyse which direction it will have to go as November 2008 looms to gain a Republican successor to George Bush Jnr.