It appears that the US Democrats have easily secured the House of Representatives with nearly twice the number of seats they needed to gain in the mid-term election. Media commentators have suggested that the Iraq war, economic management and various scandals in which the Republicans have been involved (most recently the Abramoff affair, claiming a high-profile scalp in House leader and key Bush ally Tom DeLay, and the case of Florida congressman Mark Foley sending sick messages to teenage Congressional work experience students) are uppermost in voters’ minds, while local issues played a part in many of the races. A moderate Muslim has won a historic seat in the US House of Representatives, and left-leaning Nancy Pelosi may well be the new House Leader.
The Senate is looking more tricky – whatever way it plays in Virginia, the Senate will be finely divided, and its history of dissent and independence from party bosses (unlike Australia, the US system does not enforce party discipline particularly strictly, but openly publishes voting records) means that no matter who is elected, it will be far less predictable or dependable than previously, and is likely to oppose economic policies that excessively favour the wealthy. Critically, horrendously anti-gay Pennsylvania senator and Republican rising star Rick Santorum has lost his job, with more than 60% of the vote going against him.
The most interesting product is Bush’s response – commentators were unsure whether he would finally compromise, or fight. Bush finally seems to have got the message. Donald Rumsfeld is gone. Old Donald, once famously seen shaking hands with Saddam, before becoming a founding member of the Project for the New American Century in 1997 and becoming Bush’s defence minister in January 2001 and architect of the Iraq war strategy in 2002-03, believing the war to be a done deal with a small commitment. Barely 5 years into the “New American Century”, things weren’t looking very new, or very American. PNAC itself had fallen apart over internal divisions resulting from the conduct of the war in Iraq. As a salon.com article said today (can’t find it right now), American public opinion in November 2006 seems finally to have caught up with the rest of the world. Now if only Dick Cheney would take a similar path…
We now find ourselves with a rather different USA. Perhaps a less confident, more inward looking, but maybe a more principled one. Alternatively, a USA which wants a change, but knows not what change it actually wants and ends up stalling or, worse, contradicting itself on a weekly or monthly basis. Either is possible. We still don’t quite know where the Democrats will position themselves, whether they will follow up on commitments to use the powerful House inquiry system to investigate the war in Iraq and other issues, and what they will be capable of achieving in tandem with a Republican President and administration hellbent on salvaging and interpreting their legacy for history, and whether Bush will prefer deadlock to progress. We also don’t know whether the intense partisan divisions that have categorised US politics at the population level since about a year before Bush came to power promising to be “a uniter, not a divider” will start to disappear as has happened at state level in California, where Arnie (after several rather public teething problems) has figured out how to work with a Democratic house and senate productively.
(The people, by the way, rewarded Arnie by letting him stay on as governor. He reportedly said he loves sequels but this was the best.)
As President, Bush is still in control of foreign policy, but the Congress controls the spending and as such may limit his options considerably. But Bush has been told loud and clear what the people think. If he wants to be remembered as a democratic leader in the free world, ignoring their wishes is poison to his legacy.