EDITOR?S NOTE: As part of our coverage of the midterm elections, the Orient asked professors in the government department to respond to the results of the elections. The Orient asked the professors, "What impact will the results of the national election have on the United States?" Jean Yarbrough an expert in American government, shares her thoughts here. Click here to see Michael Franz's reaction.
As the Republicans were fond of saying in the aftermath of 2004, "elections matter." Their stunning loss of what now appears to be both houses of Congress will have ramifications abroad and at home. Within the last hour, we have learned that Secretary Rumsfeld is gone, to be replaced by Robert Gates, a member of the Iraq Study Commission. I have long thought that Rumsfeld should go because I did not believe we could simultaneously modernize our armed forces, and especially our army, at the same time that we were deploying them in large numbers on the front lines in Iraq. I don't yet have an opinion about Gates, though I have been deeply suspicious of the Iraq Study Commission on which he currently serves.
But the more important question is what message does the election and its aftermath send to the terrorists? If the terrorists interpret the election as a sign that America has lost its will to fight and win the war against Islamic fascism, and the term Islamic fascism is about as accurate as any, this will be a disaster for our country, for Israel, and for the rest of the free world. Happily, it is not yet clear that they would be right. Some of the Democrats who won, Lieberman being the most dramatic example, supported the president in the war. And Rahm Emmanuel recruited several conservative Southern Democrats like Heath Schuler (North Carolina), who are unlikely to vote for withdrawal or for cutting off funds for our soldiers, as some of the far-left members of the party are demanding. The Democrats now have a stake in winning this war, and if they are smart, they'll emphasize winning it, rather than withdrawing. "Stay the course" should be replaced by a resounding bipartisan agreement to "win the war." Despite his party's losses, I hope (and have some confidence) that as long as he is president, Bush will not be deflected from this goal.
Domestically, the area where Republicans will suffer most is judicial appointments. I would not be surprised if Justice Stevens decided to retire soon, and Bush will find it impossible to get another Alito, or even Roberts, confirmed. The Senate really dropped the ball in not pushing to confirm more of his nominees before the election. Frist's chances for 2008 are about the same as George Allen's. Although the Democrats will pass minimum wage legislation, the economy probably will continue to chug along for a while. And if the Democrats get too carried away with new entitlements?the first 100 hours!?Bush can wield his (long- overdue) veto. Tax cuts do not expire until 2010, making it an issue for the next election cycle. Immigration reform of the "comprehensive" sort stands a better chance of being enacted, though I fear that the all-important question of border security will take a back seat to the "guest worker" programs that big businesses like and amnesty (by another name, of course) that the Democrats favor. Some of the new committee chairs may be tempted to launch investigations into the origins of the war, Halliburton, "the culture of corruption," etc., which temporarily assuage their anger, but they will only waste time and annoy all but their base.
Now to the question: How did this happen? Tocqueville long ago worried whether democracies had the patience to carry out long-term projects with uncertain results. We have not become a more patient nation, and we are, despite the vast sources of information at our disposal and money spent on education, ever more illiterate about politics, war, and history. But principally, I do not blame the American people; I blame the president. Although he is not as inarticulate as his critics claim, he is certainly rhetorically challenged, and this has hurt. More important, where the war is concerned, he has been largely AWOL. It is the responsibility of the president, using the considerable powers at his command, to try to shape public opinion. The president has often observed that we are at war with an enemy at least as dangerous as the Soviets, and yet he has failed spectacularly to help Americans understand what is at stake in this war and to try to rally public support for what he is doing. Nor, despite what he said, did he and his generals seem to be adapting to the situation on the ground. Because of these failures of leadership, he helped lose the independents, who voted for the Democrats by a wide margin.
Despite last minute reports that the Republican base was coming home, that support never quite materialized, or worse, if the Times is correct, some of those Republicans voted for Democrats as a protest. Evangelical support for Republicans was significantly lower than in 2004. Although there were eight states with a Defense of Marriage Act on the ballot, that issue did not have the same political clout, even though the measure passed in seven out of these states. On economic matters, Republicans were angered by the out-of-control spending by their party, and frustrated by their inability to do more about taxes, even though they controlled both the legislative and executive branches of government. Remarkably, they got very little credit for the economic rebound their tax cuts stimulated. Finally, some races were driven by juicy scandals, and the outcomes in these had little to do with national issues.
One final thought: I have my doubts that the lion and the lamb will lie down for long. Not only is there a presidential race taking shape on the horizon, but the two parties also represent fundamentally different views of where this country should be going. Despite Rahm Emmanuel's best efforts, the Democrats look to Western European social democracies as their model: universal health care, more or at least expanded entitlements, heavier taxation and more economic redistribution for the sake of "social justice" in domestic policy; international arbitration, multi-nationalism, and "soft power" abroad. Since Reagan, Republicans have offered a genuine alternative to 50 years of Democratic ascendancy: a renewal of the principles of liberal democracy on which this country was founded. Democrats now hope that this victory begins their return to political dominance. This is a contest neither side wants to lose, and despite what they are saying publicly, compromise may not be in their best interests.
Yarbrough is the Gary M. Pendy Sr. professor of social sciences. She is currently teaching The Idea of Progress in American Political Thought. Yarbrough specializes in politcal philosophy and American political thought and has published numerous articles. She recently published a book entitled "American Virtues: Thomas Jefferson on the Character of a Free People."