Rejecting the Right

One swallow does not a summer make nor one election a new era. But some significant new realities that emerged from 2006 merit attention. First, clearly, this was a sweeping victory. Democrats had to overcome the Republican advantages in incumbency, gerrymandered districts, money, and mobilization, and to do so in the midst of a wartime presidency. And they did.

Those who suggest that Democrats should embrace a small-bore agenda, seek bipartisan compromise, and temper their efforts to hold the executive accountable are listening to Beltway pundits, not to the voters who put them in office. This victory is grounded on a growing isolation of conservatives and the Republican Party they control. Conservatives now argue, as Rush Limbaugh pronounced on November 8, that “Republicans lost last night, but conservatism did not.” Voters “punished” Republicans, George Will wrote, “not for pursuing but for forgetting conservatism.” All factions chant this mantra in unison even as they open fire in the Republican shootout over who is to blame and over what kind of conservatism voters actually prefer.

It is true that any election reflects the immediate and the contingent. Karl Rove is right that Republicans lost a number of seats largely because of scandal; the mess in Iraq cost them big-time. Thus, Rove suggests, nothing is amiss. Clean up our act, get Iraq resolved, revive the base and the Republican majority is still in place.

But a closer look at what voters thought when they cast their ballots suggests far deeper problems for Republicans and conservatives. Voters sensibly identify Bush as a conservative president like Ronald Reagan. Large majorities have rejected his signature policy initiatives -- the war in Iraq, the trickle-down free-trade economic policies, privatization of Social Security, restrictions on stem-cell research, and an oil-friendly energy policy. And this rejection of Bush's policies increasingly leads voters to question broader conservative ideological tenets.

As the exit polls show, Republican defeats came as self-described independents voted in overwhelming numbers -- 58 percent to 38 percent -- for Democrats. Republicans were able to consolidate their conservative and base party voters for the most part. And the Republican mobilization and money machine did close the election in the last days, saving another 10 or so seats. (The Washington Post reports “Of 22 House elections determined by 2 percentage points or less, Republicans won 13, including 10 decided by fewer than 5,000 votes.”) Also not surprisingly, Bush's catastrophic misrule mobilized and consolidated Democrats and liberals. But it was independents, who had split their votes in 2004, who turned the election.

This surge of independent support has enabled Beltway nabobs to push Democrats to govern from the “center,” embracing conservative-lite policies. But voters are not looking for continuation of the conservative agenda. An election-eve poll by Greenberg Research for the Campaign for America's Future (CAF) and the Democracy Corps reveals the divide of independents from Republicans, and moderates from conservatives, not just on policy but on ideological perspectives as well. For example, by staggering margins, Democrats think the country is “pretty seriously off on the wrong track” (89 percent); Republicans loyally think we're headed in the “right direction” (79 percent). Independents, however, overwhelmingly agree with Democrats that things are out of whack (69 percent). Similarly, when asked to grade Bush's job performance, 90 percent of self-described liberals overwhelmingly don't approve; 68 percent of conservatives approve; and moderates disapprove, by more than two to one (66 percent).

This isolation of conservatives and Republicans extends to broader principles. Voters now believe Bush's war in Iraq has made us less safe. More broadly, when asked whether America's security comes from “building strong ties” or depending on America's “own military strength,” Democrats and independents overwhelmingly chose alliances where a majority of Republicans still chose military strength.

Similarly, on social issues: Seven states passed anti–gay marriage initiatives in this election. Despite these outcomes, however, the more gay marriage is debated, the more tolerant the country grows. By broad margins, liberals and moderates nationally now agree “homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society,” while conservatives still believe, by 64 percent to 29 percent, that it is something that should be “discouraged.” (Indeed, this election marked an important first victory for tolerance, in Arizona, where a brilliant campaign defeated the anti-gay marriage effort there.) Similarly, independents and moderates join Democrats and liberals in believing that religious groups are getting too mixed up in politics, while Republicans and conservatives believe the reverse by large margins. In a CAF poll taken by Greenberg Research in June 2006, independents (63 percent to 32 percent) and moderates (71 percent to 26 percent) preferred a government that would promote “scientific inquiry and personal freedom and let individuals make up their own moral choices” over one that would “promote morality and restrict abortion and limit science where it violates the sanctity of life.” Conservatives (51 percent to 45 percent) stood alone in preferring the latter.

On economic issues, voters are conflicted, but here, too, conservatism is being challenged. The corruption and incompetence of the Bush-Gingrich conservatives did leave voters more skeptical about government's ability to get things done and more attracted to small-government arguments. Yet, in pressing areas, large majorities look for government to lead. For example, on energy independence, voters of all stripes have lost faith in business. A small plurality of conservatives (49 percent to 46 percent) join with overwhelming majorities of liberals (80 percent) and moderates (75 percent) in calling for government to “take the lead in promoting areas vital to our future like alternative energy” rather than “allow[ing] businesses and entrepreneurs to make major investment decisions about energy.” On trade, large majorities of liberals (70 percent to 28 percent), moderates (68 percent to 26 percent) and conservatives (69 percent to 27 percent) all choose fair trade that will protect jobs over free trade that will expand exports and import cheaper goods. The voters are united on this key issue -- and divorced from the elites in both parties.

On other broad questions of economic principle, Republicans and conservatives are once more isolated. Offered a choice, large majorities of Democrats (72 percent) and independents (56 percent) say government regulation of corporations is necessary to protect the public, while Republicans (59 percent) and conservatives (51 percent) say it frequently does more harm than good. By large margins, Democrats (62 percent to 33 percent) and independents (46 percent to 37 percent) agree “America should promote the principle of strong community and taking responsibility because we are all in this together” while Republicans (51 percent to 38 percent) and conservatives (49 percent to 43 percent) opt for America encouraging “individualism, personal responsibility and self-reliance.”

A small majority of all voters prefer the conservative notion of a “limited government that keeps taxes low so businesses and individuals can prosper” over the more liberal notion of government that “helps create conditions so that many can prosper not just a few.” Yet even so, moderates significantly join liberals, by margins of 17 percent and 40 percent respectively, in favoring the liberal choice; only conservatives -- by more than three to one -- go the other way.

Rove's strategy assumes that there are few real independents, and argues that, since there are far more conservatives than liberals in the population, polarization benefits Republicans. Divide the electorate, rouse the conservative base, pick off a few independents, and sustain a governing majority to support bold conservative initiatives.
In 2006, however, his strategy went aground, as catastrophic conservatism polarized itself into the minority.

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If ever there was an election that should drive Democrats to highlight, not hide, their differences with conservatives, it was 2006. Not only did independents swing left; populist candidates and campaigns thrived. Democrats railed against Republican incumbents for supporting NAFTA and failed trade policies that ship jobs abroad. They indicted opponents for voting against raising the minimum wage while raising their own salaries. They assailed them for being in the pocket of the drug lobby and Big Oil. In a study CAF conducted of 11 battleground races (four Senate, five House, and two governors), the total amount that all campaigns spent on portraying the oil and drug company lobbies as threats exceeded the amount they spent on dramatizing the threat posed by Osama bin Laden. Even on the war until late in the day, Democratic ads focused on populist attacks on Republican failures to support the troops -- on body armor or veteran's benefits.

The poster boys of the conservative Democrats -- Congressman Heath Shuler from North Carolina and Senator Jim Webb in Virginia -- ran campaigns featuring populist appeals on trade, jobs, and wages. Strong progressive populists, in Vermont, Ohio, Minnesota, and Montana, won in the Senate. Bob Casey and Claire McCaskill also owe their victories in large part to an appeal based on bread-and-butter issues. These candidates -- along with the more than 25 new Democratic members in the House who ran against NAFTA and trade accords -- mark the end of the corporate consensus on trade and globalization.

Surely the signature race of this cycle was the victory of Sherrod Brown over incumbent Mike DeWine for the senate in Ohio. DeWine followed Rove's textbook strategy, assailing his opponent on taxes and terror, while scorning Brown's record of voting against the war in Iraq, against the Patriot Act, against warrantless wiretapping, against the anti–gay marriage amendment. Brown responded with an unrelenting campaign focused on populist economic issues, indicting DeWine for his votes on NAFTA, against the minimum wage, against overtime pay, for tax cuts for the wealthy. (A study of the Ohio campaign with links to the ads is available at In a weathervane, socially conservative state, the voters came out strongly for the antiwar, socially liberal populist: Brown won by 56 percent to 44 percent, with more than three-fourths of voters considering the economy extremely or very important to their vote. The 63 percent of voters who thought the economy was not so good or poor supported Brown 75 percent to 25 percent; the 36 percent who thought the economy excellent or good went with DeWine 70 percent to 29 percent.

Exit polls show 87 percent of Republicans stayed with DeWine, while Brown swept 91 percent of Democrats, and won independents two to one, with DeWine losing a staggering 29 percent from his margin among independents in 2000. Brown's populism even began to win back Reagan Democrats, despite his social liberalism. Brown won 57 percent of the male vote (and 53 percent of white males), with DeWine losing more than 20 percentage points from his total in 2000. The lower the income, the higher Brown's margin, but his populism did not turn off the more affluent: He won voters with $100,000 or more in income, with DeWine losing a stunning 28 percent from his total in 2000 in this group.

Some discount Brown's victory because Ohio had been hit hard by the loss of manufacturing jobs and the state Republican Party was rife with scandal. But with the national economy already slowing, Ohio may turn out to foreshadow the national 2008 landscape better than most states. More than that, what happened in Ohio is consistent with results elsewhere, suggesting that the election marks more than a transitory rebuke to Republicans. Bush's catastrophic failures have begun to discredit conservative principles, not simply his policies.

Polls show that voters know what Republicans stand for, but still have little notion of what Democrats represent. Democrats would benefit by clearly differentiating themselves from Republican conservatives. Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's first-100-hour agenda -- raising the minimum wage, cutting student interest rates in half, negotiating lower drug prices, and revoking subsidies to Big Oil -- is a good start. Beyond that, Democrats must focus on getting the troops out of Iraq, investigating the corruption and incompetence surrounding the war, pushing for energy independence, and addressing the threats posed by a collapsing health care and pension system and an unsustainable U.S. global deficit that will reach nearly $1 trillion next year alone.

In the November elections, moderate Republicans were decimated. But even as conservatives consolidate their hold on the Republican Party, they are growing less popular. In 1994, when the Gingrich Congress took power, more voters felt warm (47 percent) about “conservatives” than cool (25 percent). In 2006, more were cool (41 percent) than warm (38 percent) -- a drop of 21 percentage points. The word “liberal” is still less popular than “conservative,” a reflection of the long-term and successful conservative campaign to burlesque liberalism. What 2006 suggests is that Bush's catastrophic conservatism opens the opportunity to repay the compliment.

Robert Borosage is the co-director of the Campaign for America's Future and board chairman of Progressive Majority.