The Conservative Era Ends
November 9, 2006 - 8:21pm ET
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Earlier this year, Democrats were derided in some quarters for not having a plan comparable to the “Contract With America” that—legend has it—Republicans used to sweep Democrats out of power in 1994. It turns out, of course, that Democrats didn’t need one—and therein lies an opportunity for progressives.
Polling released Thursday by Democracy Corps and the Campaign For America’s Future shows that Democrats won Tuesday because even though the party has an unfavorable image among voters (43 percent “cool” or negative, 39 percent “warm” or positive), they were less unfavorable than the Republicans (48 percent cool, 38 percent warm). But there is actually some good news in that assessment: Having turned out Republicans out of anger over the war in Iraq, corruption and cronyism, progressives have an opportunity to help shape a Democratic Party that is ill-defined in the minds of voters into a force for 21st-century economic populism.
Interviews of 2,000 voters, half of them in 50 swing districts, on Tuesday and Wednesday revealed that many voters pulled the Democratic lever because, as pollster Stan Greenberg put it, “the conservative political world crystallized by Bush has crashed in this election.” That means Democrats can step into the breach by listening to the message voters were sending on November 7 loud and clear: Work to get U.S. troops out of Iraq and make government and the economy work for working people.
The public is still not clear on what Democrats stand for with regards to the Iraq War, said Campaign for America’s Future co-director Robert L. Borosage, but what became evident as Democratic campaigns unfolded is that on the Iraq war “Democratic candidates started out sounding like Hillary Clinton on Iraq” — cautious and middle-of-the-road-straddling—“and ended up sounding like Ned Lamont.” That runs counter to the conventional wisdom that was predominant among pundits even before a single ballot was cast: that any Democratic gains in Congress would be attributed to a Democratic swing to the right.
No wonder Democrats felt emboldened to adopt themes from the party's progressive wing: According to the poll, 54 percent of those interviewed favored setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, as opposed to 39 percent who do not, and 58 percent want increased congressional oversight of the administration’s war effort.
On economic issues, successful candidates pounded the Bush administration on such issues as tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations, while Republican counterattacks alleging that Democrats would raise taxes on average families fell flat, Borosage said. “The populist temper of this campaign can’t be emphasized enough,” he said.
“Changing our economic policies so middle-class families can prosper again” was ranked as one of the top three reasons for voting for a Democratic candidate for Congress by 75 percent of those who indicated they did or would do so. That same percentage ranked in one of their top three reasons “getting us out of the mess in Iraq.”
More evidence of the progressive victory on Tuesday comes from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which reported Thursday that it has grown to at least 71 members. That includes seven new members elected Tuesday, which would make the progressive wing of the House Democrats significantly larger than the "Blue Dog" or "New Democratic Coalition" blocs.
“Some inside-the-Beltway commentators, columnists, and conservatives want the American people to believe that last Tuesday’s election results have especially empowered moderate-to-conservative elements within the House Democratic Caucus in the 110th Congress, but that is an incomplete picture of the new political landscape on Capitol Hill,” Congresswoman Barbara Lee, D-Calif., a co-chairwoman of the caucus, said.
Progressive Caucus members have been in the forefront of agitating for withdrawal from Iraq and have already set the stage for the populist economic battles that a former Progressive Caucus member, House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is expected to lead in the new Congress.
Greenberg said he would not call what happened Tuesday a “realignment,” but he did say “it is a very different world” from the one that existed as late as two years ago, when Republicans confidently spoke of semi-permanent Republican dominance of American politics. “This is a moment of opportunity,” Greenberg said. “The story is still to be written of how Democrats can take advantage of this opportunity.”
The election was more than a rejection of one-party Republican rule, Borosage said. It is also “the end of a conservative era that began in 1980, and the question now is what comes after that era.”
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