Speaker Pelosi ~ Editorial

The Wall Street Journal

Speaker Pelosi
November 9, 2006
; Page A14

Tuesday's Democratic election victory was by any measure decisive, yet in the perspective of history also unsurprising. In the sixth year of a two-term Presidency, Americans rebuked Republicans on Capitol Hill who had forgotten their principles and a President who hasn't won the Iraq war he started. While a thumping defeat for the GOP, the vote was about competence, not ideological change.

This is not to minimize the Democrats' victory, which they deserve to savor after several frustrating election nights. Credit in particular goes to Rahm Emanuel and Chuck Schumer, who led the House and Senate efforts to pick candidates who could win in GOP-leaning states. Their leaders, notably Speaker-in-waiting Nancy Pelosi, also kept in check their ideological ambitions to make Tuesday a referendum on Republican governance. It was a shrewd strategy.

All the more so because the GOP gave them so much ammunition. By our count, at least eight GOP House seats fell largely due to scandal; campaign-finance ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff probably cost Conrad Burns his Senate seat in Montana. These columns have spent several years warning Republicans that their overspending, corrupt "earmarks" and policy drift would undermine their claim as the party of reform. On Tuesday they did.

The GOP "base" voted in respectable numbers, but enough of it voted for Democrats to make the difference. At 32%, the self-identified conservative share of the electorate was down only slightly from 2004 (34%), and the liberal share of 21% stayed the same. What changed is that the GOP won fewer conservative and independent votes.

Democrats were able to exploit this frustration even without offering much of their own agenda. While this worked in the campaign, it leaves in doubt how Democrats will use their new power. In the minority, they could assail "George Bush's war" and threaten impeachment to mobilize their base without fear of being held responsible. Now they will have to govern. For Ms. Pelosi, this will mean deciding how much deference to give to the Great Society liberals who will soon run most House committees. Henry Waxman, David Obey, Pete Stark, Ed Markey, John Conyers, Barney Frank: These are sons of the Sixties who helped drive the Carter and Clinton Presidencies off a cliff.

They represent the soul of the Democratic House but not the desires of most voters in the 15 seats or so that provided their margin of victory on Tuesday. To sustain their majority in 2008 and beyond, Democrats will have to hold such seats as those won in eastern Pennsylvania by pro-military veterans Admiral Joe Sestak and Chris Carney, or in North Carolina by pro-life, anti-gun control Heath Shuler.

We doubt voters in those seats chose Democrats with a goal of "censuring" Mr. Bush, much less impeaching him, or because they want a tax increase or an unseemly retreat from Iraq. Flooding the Beltway with subpoenas and partisan hearings may be cathartic for the Bush-hating left, but it won't send a signal that Democrats are different from the DeLay Republicans. If Ms. Pelosi sides with the antiwar Jack Murtha against Maryland's moderate Steny Hoyer in the race for House Majority Leader, Republicans will be overjoyed at this signal that the old liberals are back in charge.

In the Senate, probable Majority Leader Harry Reid faces a comparable choice. His predecessor, Tom Daschle, lost the majority and later his own seat in large part because he played the role of obstructionist, especially on judges. Democrats might note that they gained Senate seats this year after having confirmed two Supreme Court Justices and taking judges off the table as a dominant election issue. At the very least, immigration and education are two areas where Democrats should be able to find common ground with Mr. Bush.

The biggest question mark, and responsibility, for Democrats is on Iraq and the war on terror. They could do themselves and the country much good by working with Mr. Bush on a strategy toward achieving victory in Iraq as well as against al Qaeda. This means more than bromides about a "phased withdrawal" of troops next year, which won't encourage Iraq's militias to disarm; and it means more than Mr. Murtha's "redeployment" to Okinawa or somewhere else where the world would see that the U.S. has given up on Iraq.

The Democrats could be most constructive by taking up the call of Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain to do whatever it takes to win in Iraq. If this means more troops, Iraqi or American, they should call for them. And if it means spending more to build a larger American military in this era of the global terrorist threat, they should do that too. This would not sit well with many on the antiwar left, but then Ned Lamont lost to Mr. Lieberman once their contest moved to an electorate larger than the Democratic primaries.

In Tuesday's exit polls, for all of their other woes, Republicans still had an advantage over Democrats of seven percentage points as the party more likely to keep the country safer from terrorism. Since this threat isn't going away, Democrats won't help their image going into 2008 by opposing warrantless wiretaps against al Qaeda or the rest of the antiwar agenda. They would be smarter to make themselves partners in giving institutional permanence to Mr. Bush's best post-9/11 policies.

All told, the Republicans deserved the electoral drubbing they received. Democrats will now have to prove they deserved the majority that GOP failure has handed them.

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