By Michael Barone
We seem to be entering a new period in American politics. We have come through a period of trench warfare, in which two armies of approximately equal size faced each other across the battlefield and tried to rally their sides to achieve the incremental gains that would make the difference between victory or defeat. There were few defections from either army in this culture war, and almost no one crossing the lines. Like the trench warfare of World War I, our politics in this period, which stretched from 1995 to 2005, was a conflict of many bitter battles and no final victories.
Now we seem to be entering a new period, a period of open-field politics. It seems to be a time when there are no permanent alliances, when new leaders arise with new strategies and tactics, when the voters, instead of forming themselves into two coherent and cohesive armies, wander about the field, attaching themselves to one band and then another, with no clear lines of battle and no landmarks to rally beside.
Americans are facing the first presidential election since 1928-80 years ago!-that doesn't feature the incumbent president or the incumbent vice president as a candidate. We have gone through periods of open-field politics before, most recently between 1990 and 1995. In those years, a little-known governor of Arkansas challenged an incumbent president whose job approval rose to 89%; a Texas billionaire announced his candidacy on cable news and soon led the putative Republican and Democratic nominees in the polls; and the Republican Party, after 40 years in the minority in the House, won thumping majorities in the House and Senate. Few professional observers of politics predicted any of those three surprising developments.
Similar surprises, or quite different ones, may be in store for us. In the first months of 2007, the presidential candidates leading in the polls included the wife of a former president, a man who had never been a governor or a senator and who was far out of line with his party on issues important to its base, and a man who during the immediately preceding presidential contest was a state senator in Illinois. More surprises may be coming.
The 2006 Elections: One period is over, another begins
The results of the 2006 election were significantly different from those of the five biennial elections between 1996 and 2004. For a decade, we seemed to be an almost evenly divided and deeply politically polarized country. From the 1995-96 budget showdown between President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich until after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the political balance across the country remained very much the same. We were a 49% nation, as was written in this space six years ago.
In the five House elections between 1996 and 2004, Republican candidates won between 49% and 51% of the vote, and Democratic candidates won between 46% and 48.5%-an unusually narrow range in American history. Clinton was re-elected with 49% of the vote in 1996; George W. Bush and Al Gore both won a rounded-off 48% in 2000; Bush beat John Kerry in 2004 by 51% to 48%, the narrowest percentage margin for a re-elected president since Woodrow Wilson beat Charles Evans Hughes 49% to 46% in 1916.
The electorate was divided primarily by cultural, even moral, issues: two armies in a culture war facing each other across the trenches. The bitterness of these divisions was exacerbated because the two men who occupied the White House-Clinton and Bush, both born in 1946, the first year of the Baby Boom, and both graduating in the high school class of 1964, which had the highest SAT scores since the test was first administered-happen to have personal characteristics that those on the other side of the cultural divide absolutely loathed. Elections became less a matter of persuading movable voters in the center and more a matter of turning out the party faithful on Election Day-or even before, thanks to the increasing trend toward absentee and early voting.
The 2006 election was at least somewhat different. Most glaringly different in a partisan sense: Democrats won a clear-cut victory, gaining majorities in both the Senate and the House, for the first time since 1992. (The Democrats' 2001-02 Senate majority was attained by a party switch rather than an election.) The Democratic capture of the Senate last year owed something to luck, as is often the case; Democrats won six of the seven closest races, and their candidates won in Montana and Virginia-both long shots at the start of the year-by a total of 12,891 votes. But parties have captured (or put themselves in position to capture) Senate majorities by winning most of the close races before-Republicans in 1980; Democrats in 1986 and 2000.
In House races, Democrats won 52% of the popular vote, compared with Republicans' 46%-a contrast to the Republicans' 50% to 47% advantage in 2004 and their 51% to 46% advantage in 2002. This shift was similar in magnitude to many others in American electoral history when one party or the other seemed to have a dominant majority. But coming as it did in a time of near-parity, it resulted in a decisive change in party control. House Democrats' popular vote ratio in 2006 was very similar to the House Republicans' 52% to 45% popular vote edge in 1994-the last year that either party got as much as 52% of the House vote.
Meanwhile, no presidential candidate has won as much as 52% of the popular vote since George H.W. Bush won 53% in 1988. The Democrats' 233-202 House majority after the 2006 election was nearly identical to the Republicans' 230-205 majority after the 1994 contest. (The majority grew to 235-200 after party switches and special-election victories later in that Congress; all numbers here count independent members as belonging to the party for which they voted to organize the House.) The Democrats' majority in the 110th Congress is also almost identical to the Republicans' 232-203 majority during most of the preceding Congress.
The contours of partisan support have not shifted greatly. Exit polls suggest that the Republicans' backing fell by similar percentages among just about every demographic group except those that have been mostly solidly moored to their party. The GOP's percentages fell more sharply among independents than among Democrats and Republicans, as one might expect, given the stronger partisan ties of the latter.
From 2002 to 2006, there was little difference in the parties' support among the elderly, many of whom have developed fixed preferences over the years, or among blacks, who have been voting overwhelmingly Democratic since 1964. Similarly, there was little change among demographic groups with large percentages of blacks-including voters with incomes under $15,000 and those who have not graduated from high school. In 2006 the Democrats held 92% of 2004 Kerry voters; the Republicans held a lower percentage, 83%, of 2004 Bush voters.
One of the triumphs of the 2004 Bush campaign was the registration and voter-turnout effort that increased the president's popular vote tally 23% from 2000 (Kerry's popular vote was 16% higher than Gore's in 2000). But looking at the 2006 figures, one gets the feeling that many of the new voters who came out for Bush in 2004 voted for Democratic members of Congress in 2006. Unfortunately, the exit poll did not identify those who voted for the first time in 2004.
Looking at the 2006 results in specific districts, one finds Democrats beating Republicans in districts that Bush carried by large ratios, as much as 62%, in 2004. Some Republican incumbents had specific problems, but these results also suggest that when Democrats seriously contested such districts, many voters were much more willing to cross party lines than they had been in the five elections between 1996 and 2004.
A couple of other demographic points are useful. The AFL-CIO and other unions again conducted a major voter-turnout drive in 2006, and that effort seems to have paid off. Fully 23% of 2006 voters said they were either union members or part of a household in which someone was a union member, and 63% of them voted Democratic. This is a startlingly high number, because only 8% of private-sector workers (and 36% of the many fewer public-sector workers) are union members. The unions seem to have leveraged a rather small movement into a much stronger political force, one to whom Democratic politicians owe very much indeed.
The GOP continues to owe a debt to white evangelical and born-again Protestants, who despite some grousing by leaders turned out strongly enough to form 24% of the electorate, and who voted 70% Republican. In contrast, people who said they never attend church services (15% of voters) voted 67% Democratic.
The 2006 election may turn out to be the beginning of a long period of Democratic dominance. Or it may not. The election was more a verdict on competence than on ideology, and it gave the Democrats an opportunity but, on most issues at least, not a mandate.
As the liberal columnist E.J. Dionne wrote, Democrats got their votes on loan. It was a negative verdict on the conduct of the military struggle in Iraq and on the government's response to Hurricane Katrina. It was a negative verdict on a Republican Congress that seemed casual about corruption and complacent about wasteful spending. It was a victory won after a campaign that was conducted largely in an idea-free zone. Republicans campaigned on pretty much the platform that Bush ran on in 2000 and 2004, though many of his promises had already been fulfilled, and others-such as Social Security reform-had been set aside as unachievable. Democrats campaigned pretty much as opponents of Bush, with a platform made up of planks that were minimalist (raise the minimum wage) or lacking in specifics in voters' minds (enact all the recommendations of the 9/11 commission, whatever they were).
The talented chairmen of the Democrats' House and Senate campaign committees, Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois and Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, came out with books just before and after the election (Emanuel's was co-authored by Clinton White House domestic chief Bruce Reed) that advocated innovative and attractive ideas for changes in public policy. But Emanuel and Schumer did not press these ideas on their candidates. Instead, they shrewdly recruited and financed candidates who were out of line with the majority of the Democratic caucuses but in line with their districts and states, and the campaign chiefs had the satisfaction of seeing many of them win on Election Night.
This was quite a different victory from the Republicans' win in 1994. Then, the GOP largely defeated those Democrats who had supported liberal policies (the 1993 tax increase; the Clinton health care plan) in districts where majorities were considerably more conservative than their representative's voting records. In 2006, in contrast, as political scientist David Brady has pointed out, Democrats tended to defeat Republicans generally, especially those with relatively moderate records in relatively liberal districts and those who had scandal problems.
The 1994 election was a clear indication that voters would not have re-elected Bill Clinton had he been on the ballot that year; and he won his reelection in 1996 by changing his course on issues (most notably by signing the 1996 welfare reform act) and by campaigning as a champion of consensus against the kind of "angry white men" who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City. The 2006 election was a clear indication that voters would not have re-elected George W. Bush had he been on the ballot that year. But he wasn't, and he won't be in 2008. Republicans have the chance to nominate a presidential candidate who will perhaps be in a different place on issues and will be able to argue, persuasively or not, that he has the competence that last year's voters believed that Bush lacked.
Voters in 1994 knew they could elect a Republican Congress without getting an entirely Republican government; they would just get a check on, or a goad to force a change of course on, Clinton. Voters in 2006 knew they could elect a Democratic Congress without getting an entirely Democratic government; they would just get a check on, or a goad to force a change of course on, Bush.
In 1996, as it turned out, voters decided they didn't want an entirely Republican government (though the margin in House races was exceedingly close). In 2008, voters may or not decide they want an entirely Democratic government. And it seems that they will be faced with that question, given that most political experts, looking at the lineup of Senate and House seats likely to be seriously contested, expect the Democrats to hold their congressional majorities in 2008. So the presidential election of 2008 will probably raise the question, more so than the 2000 presidential election did (because Democrats then had high hopes, which they nearly achieved, of winning a majority in the House), of whether voters want to turn the whole government over to one party.
The Democratic majorities in the 110th Congress emerged with a mandate, arguably, to end U.S. military involvement in Iraq. But they did not, given Bush's decision to "surge" additional troops into the conflict, have the means to put that mandate into effect, at least not immediately. They had the additional problem that a larger percentage of the public-59% versus 51% in the 2006 exit poll-believe that Republicans would make America safe from terrorism than would Democrats. The lingering reputation of the Democratic Party as weaker on protecting the nation and asserting U.S. interests-a reputation that dates from 1972 and was quite a reversal from the Democrats' reputation for being stronger on defense and more assertive in foreign policy that prevailed from 1940 to the 1960s-is a potential handicap for 2008, no matter how strong the party's position on Iraq was in the last half of 2006 and the first half of 2007.
As for domestic policy, here indeed is an open field. The issue is no longer, as it was from the 1920s to the 1980s, macroeconomic management. Voters in that era who remembered the Depression of the 1930s were ready, at the slightest sign of recession, to vote once again against Herbert Hoover's fecklessness and for Franklin Roosevelt's penchant for improvisational intervention. Voters who remembered the stagflation of the 1970s were ready, at the slightest sign of inflation and torpor, to vote against Jimmy Carter's dolorous insistence on sacrifice and for Ronald Reagan's optimistic faith that once the shackles were off, America's best economic times were ahead.
But almost none of today's voters remember the 1930s and fewer than half of them remember the 1970s. In the quarter-century since 1983, Americans have lived in a country that has enjoyed non-inflationary economic growth 95% of the time. They have come to think of this as the norm. They give politicians, particularly Bush, no credit when the economy performs this way, and they complain querulously about the slightest irritations, such as gasoline prices that in real dollar terms are far lower than they were in the early 1980s.
Polls show that public opinion on the state of the economy is so highly correlated with party identification that one must conclude it is less an assessment of objective conditions and more a matter of supporting the home team. Republicans complained about the vibrant economy in Clinton's second term; Democrats complained about the vibrant economy in Bush's second term. Macroeconomic numbers no longer move political numbers.
What does divide the parties is the way they frame economic issues. The Democrats want to redress economic inequality. The Republicans want to stimulate economic activity. But the Democrats haven't advanced policies that would reduce inequality substantially, nor have they answered the objection that policies that do-such as those adopted in Western Europe-also tend to produce economic stagnation.
The Republicans, meanwhile, went into the 2006 elections with a record of not holding down spending as much as taxes. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, faced with the need to hold together a small Republican majority, used money as his glue. Appropriators and Transportation Committee Republicans poured money into their districts (and let committee Democrats do the same) with increasing liberality. The ultimate earmark was Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young's $230 million "bridge to nowhere," an earmark in the 2005 transportation bill for a bridge to connect Ketchikan, Alaska (pop. 7,410) with its airport on the island of Gravina (pop. 50).
At the same time, neither party has come to terms with the looming long-range problem of entitlements. The Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare programs are on a trajectory to eat up an ever-larger share of gross domestic product, to the point that in the lifetimes of many current members of Congress they will require far higher levels of taxation or borrowing to sustain them. Bush addressed Social Security in his 2000 and 2004 campaigns and tried to put it on Congress's agenda in 2005. He failed.
Young voters, the presumed beneficiaries of any change, seemed totally unmoved: Reagan and Clinton strengthened their parties among young voters, but Bush signally failed to do so. In response to his initiative, congressional Democrats were, almost to a member, prepared to entertain no changes. House Republicans were visibly reluctant to advance any proposal and gladly used the excuse of Hurricane Katrina to duck the issue in September 2005. Bush and members of Congress have come forward with arguably constructive approaches to changing health care finance. But in early 2007 none of those seemed ripe for passage.
In any event, the 2006 election was not a mandate for major domestic policy changes. It was an opportunity for congressional Democrats to demonstrate competence. The election may prove to be the harbinger of a long Democratic era. But it is scarcely a guarantee of one. And as the months go on, the struggle between Bush and the Democratic Congress-or the agreement they may reach on some serious issues, such as education and immigration-seem likely to be increasingly overshadowed by the competition between presidential candidates and, by some point in 2008, by the positions taken by the two parties' nominees.
The Open-Field Presidential Race
There was plenty of evidence by early 2007 that the 2008 presidential race was going to be starkly different from the races in 2004 or 2000. Partly, of course, because neither the president nor vice president was running. Voters were faced not with a choice between an incumbent and an alternative, but with a wide variety of alternatives. And initial polling suggested that voters were not as tightly moored to party labels as they were in recent years.
In 2004, poll results matching Bush and Kerry, taken before Kerry clinched the Democratic nomination, changed little from week to week and month to month. The vast majority of voters were clearly on one side or the other, and both the Bush and Kerry campaigns concentrated on motivating and mobilizing their supporters to get to the polls on Election Day, or, better yet, to vote early.
Early polls on the 2008 contest were different. They showed the best-known potential candidates for both parties-Hillary Rodham Clinton, Al Gore, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain-running well above 50% against little-known candidates of the other party. Voters who had never considered crossing party lines in the 2000 and 2004 cycles were apparently ready to do so. No more trench warfare: We were now in an open field.
Within the parties, the rules seemed to change as well. Early 2007 polling showed remarkable symmetry on the two parties' nominations. Leading in most polls were two candidates who were in opposition to or in tension with their parties' bases on issues that were or have been of great importance to the base-Giuliani (abortion and other cultural issues) and Clinton (the war in Iraq).
In second place in most polls were two candidates whose seeming lack of partisan edge was in contrast to the strong visceral feelings of both parties' bases-McCain (who worked with Democrats on campaign finance regulation and other issues) and Barack Obama (whose keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention stressed what Democrats and Republicans have in common rather than what divides them).
In third place were two candidates whose views and partisan edge seemed very much in line with their parties' bases, but who had arrived at those positions only recently-Mitt Romney (who changed his views on abortion and other issues) and John Edwards (who came out as a strong opponent of the Iraq war he had voted for).
Democratic voters seemed pretty pleased with their field of candidates and fairly confident that their party was headed to victory. Republican voters seemed less pleased with their field and less confident of victory-and two possible candidates with potentially wide followings, Gingrich and Fred Thompson, hovered over their field tantalizingly. But voters in both parties seemed willing to consider candidates who did not meet all of their litmus tests. And in spring 2007 many voters in both parties-in national polls and in polls in such potentially pivotal states as Iowa and New Hampshire-seemed to be moving from one candidate to another, with no firm commitment to any.
No candidate in either party seemed to be running as a clone of either of the two previous presidents, Clinton and Bush. Not even Hillary Rodham Clinton. She left behind the centrist tone of her husband's 1992 campaign and instead campaigned in line with the tone and substance of a party that has moved perceptibly to the left since he left the White House in January 2001.
Partly, this shift is simply because the issues are different: Reducing welfare and crime were the great public policy successes of the 1990s, for which the Clinton administration could take some credit. But Hillary Clinton, like most of her Democratic congressional colleagues, had moved away from the Clinton administration's staunch support of free-trade agreements and had not called for the kind of military interventions that Bill Clinton ordered in Bosnia and (without United Nations approval) in Kosovo.
The other Democratic contenders-Edwards, Obama, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson-all called for more or less immediate withdrawal from Iraq. In the 2004 cycle, all of the Democratic candidates except Joe Lieberman and Dick Gephardt denounced the Bush administration in vitriolic terms, and those two quickly fell by the wayside. No Democratic candidate in the 2008 cycle seemed to be taking such an approach. Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, who might have been expected to, decided not to run.
Among the Republicans, none was running as a clone of Bush. Senators Bill Frist and George Allen had been expected to do so and had taken issue positions similar to Bush's (except, in Allen's case, on immigration). But Allen lost reelection to the Senate and Frist, shortly after returning to Nashville, announced that he would not run. All of the candidates actively running took positions at odds with Bush's on some issues, and some criticized his performance on Iraq and other matters. Giuliani, McCain, and Romney all disagreed with Bush on important issues. Tommy Thompson, though he served four years in the Bush Cabinet, talked more about his 14 years as governor of Wisconsin. Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, and Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado campaigned as believers in various forms of conservatism, with different emphases. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas campaigned as a libertarian, against government intervention at home and abroad.
All of this has made the 2008 presidential race different from any other recent presidential race. So does the fact that, although voters expressed a generic preference for a Democratic president over a Republican president, at the same time in many polls respondents preferred Giuliani and, less often, McCain over Hillary Clinton and Gore, the best-known Democrats-and the ones most closely associated with the generally positively regarded Clinton administration. It does look like an open field.
One way to suggest how open is to advance three possible scenarios for the 2008 results, scenarios that are based on previous election results but are plausible extensions of trends apparent in early 2007. In each case, however, some differences exist between the historical example and the factors in the 2008 race.
The Blair Scenario
In the early 1990s, Britain's Conservative Party was regarded as nasty but competent. Then in September 1992 Britain was forced to exit from the European Rate Mechanism; interest rates and mortgage payments shot up, and the Conservatives' reputation for economic competence vanished. The Labor Party went ahead in the polls, to remain there until 2006, an impressive 14 years. Under the leadership of Tony Blair, New Labor, as he called it, won a sweeping victory in 1997. The House of Commons shifted from 343-273 Conservative to 419-165 Labor. Prime Minister Blair's party won a similarly sweeping victory in 2001 and won by a slightly reduced margin in 2005.
Today's Republicans, like the British Conservatives in the 1990s, have lost their reputation for competence. If things unfold here now as they did in Britain then, the result would be a 40-state presidential victory for the Democrats, a magnitude they have not achieved since 1964. It would also result in a considerably more Democratic Congress than at present, with Democrats winning seats previously regarded as utterly safe for Republicans-results that seemed as inconceivable in America in 2006 as they did in Britain in 1992.
But the two situations are not exactly parallel. Labor won in Britain only after Tony Blair rebranded the party as New Labor, with a renunciation of socialism and an embrace of market economics. If the old Labor Party's leader, John Smith, had not died suddenly in 1994, to be succeeded by the 41-year-old Blair, Labor might well have won in 1997 but probably by a much smaller and less durable margin.
America's Democrats in early 2007 didn't seem to be rebranding themselves as New Democrats, as Bill Clinton did in 1992. Moreover, it's not clear that the Republican nominee in 2008 will have the reputation for incompetence that Bush did in 2006. Giuliani's strength came not only from his response to the September 11 attacks but also from his well-known success in cutting crime and welfare dependency by more than half in New York City. Other possible Republican nominees had records that supported their claims of competence, and they will have the opportunity in the 2008 campaign to demonstrate that quality.
The Ike Scenario
In 1952 the United States was mired in a deadly conflict in Korea-a conflict that took 10 times as many lives as Iraq has and that President Truman could not end. There emerged a candidate with a record of making life-and-death decisions in war: Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ike captured the Republican nomination from "Mr. Republican," Robert Taft, and then defeated a refreshing new face from Illinois, Adlai Stevenson, who had little military experience. At a time when Democrats had a big advantage in party identification, Eisenhower won the election solidly, and Republicans captured small majorities in both houses of Congress.
This scenario does not fit perfectly with the situation in 2008. None of the Republican candidates can claim experience anything like Eisenhower's. But Giuliani did command a uniformed force of 40,000 that reduced crime in New York City by 64%. McCain served in combat and has had a record of close attention to military affairs ever since. None of the leading Democrats has comparable experience. Clinton has been a conscientious member of the Armed Services Committee. Obama is, like Stevenson, a fresh face from Illinois. Edwards was a senator for six years and has been a candidate for president for more than five. Perhaps the closest to Ike is Richardson, who has conducted serious negotiations with the North Koreans and served as ambassador to the United Nations.
There is another difference. Eisenhower was the nominee of the opposition party and was critical of the policy of the president. Today's Republicans have mostly supported Bush on Iraq. Yet a straight-line extrapolation from some of the early 2007 polls produces a result that looks something like the Ike scenario-that is, the election of a Republican president by a decisive margin, with Democrats holding narrow congressional majorities (or, as in 1952, narrowly losing them).
The Perot Scenario
In February 1992 a short billionaire from Texas told CNN's Larry King that he might run for president. Perot had enough money (he ultimately spent more than $60 million of his own money) and enough celebrity to make an independent candidacy plausible. What made Perot appealing to voters tired of stale, bitter division were his calls for reform and an end to partisan wrangling.
The short billionaire who is in a position to do something similar in 2008 is Michael Bloomberg, who spent $160 million getting elected mayor of New York City in 2001 and 2005. Bloomberg ranks 142nd on Forbes's list of the world's billionaires with a personal fortune of $5.5 billion, and he has demonstrated a willingness to spend unprecedented sums on campaigns. He can also argue, in a time of bitter partisanship, that he has a record of nonpartisan achievement. His job ratings from New Yorkers have been higher than Giuliani's were, and the Manhattan media elite, which appreciated Giuliani's success in cutting crime but was uncomfortable with his sharp challenges to conventional liberalism, find Bloomberg's less-confrontational style more congenial.
Of course, the two situations are somewhat different. For one thing, Bloomberg has no military experience or credibility. Perot's Texas twang enabled him to straddle cultural issues and to appeal to voters on both sides of the cultural divide. Bloomberg's Boston accent (he grew up outside the city) and self-assurance are perhaps not as broadly appealing. Bloomberg's chances as an independent would probably be highest if the Republicans nominated an unapologetic cultural conservative and the Democrats put forward a radical-sounding war opponent. But it's not clear that either party will do so.
In fact, in early 2007 it wasn't clear what either party, or any candidate or potential candidate, would do. What did seem fairly clear was that they were all running in an open field, with voters more liable than they had been to consider candidates different from those they supported in the past, and more ready to change their minds. Any of the above scenarios, or something like them, could conceivably happen-or at least one could see how they could happen by making straight-line extrapolations from the political facts in early 2007. But not all of them can happen. We have moved from trench warfare to open-field politics, and we don't know what's ahead.
THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
"Tonight I have a high privilege and distinct honor of my own-as the first President to begin the State of the Union message with these words: Madam Speaker." With these words George W. Bush saluted Nancy Pelosi, the 60th Speaker of the House of Representatives. Bush went on to note that Pelosi's father, Congressman Thomas D'Alesandro, had watched Presidents Roosevelt and Truman speak at the podium. These two grace notes were a recognition of the fact that Pelosi at one and the same time represented innovation and tradition: she was the first woman Speaker and also one schooled and steeped in traditional politics. Growing up, she had helped her father, mayor of Baltimore after he served in the House, tend to ethnic precinct politics; as an adult (and the mother of five children) she advanced in the very different politics of ultraliberal San Francisco. To become speaker she also had to work with and for Democrats from many diverse districts-from inner city black neighborhoods to Midwestern farm country, country districts in the South and affluent precincts of liberal big cities where so much of her party's money is raised.
Her elevation to the speakership was a distinct break for the House from the 12 years of Republican control, just as Newt Gingrich's elevation was a distinct break from 40 years of Democratic majorities. It probably cannot be said of her, as it could of Gingrich, that her party would not have won a majority if she had not been there. She has been not so much a transformational as simply an effective political leader. Democrats in the 12 years before 2006 had never entirely given up on the hope of regaining a majority; Republican margins were simply too small to make their overturning unimaginable. But there had been trying times, and Pelosi did much to get Democrats through them. In contrast, from 1974 until the early 1990s few Republicans believed they could ever be in the majority again. Gingrich convinced them they could, and did much to make it happen.
There are two other former House members who were not present to see Pelosi at the Speaker's podium at the 2007 State of the Union, and who would have beamed as much as her father if they had: her predecessors in her district in San Francisco, Phillip Burton and Sala Burton. Phil Burton died suddenly in 1983 and Sala Burton, dying of cancer in 1987, wanted Pelosi to succeed her. The Burtons were an extraordinary couple who had an impact on the House as great in their time as Gingrich had in his, and through Pelosi they may be said to have an impact once again. Phil Burton was a spiritual heir of the longshoremen who led one of the nation's largest general strikes in San Francisco in 1934; as a young assemblyman he won a special election to the House in 1964. Soon he was the guiding force in the liberal Democratic Study Group, at a time when the Democratic leadership didn't whip votes for liberal causes. Under Burton and his hand-picked successors, the DSG stepped in in its place. Burton was a backer of Robert Kennedy and George McGovern in 1968 and 1972 and helped lead the California delegations in demanding reform of party rules. He demanded reform of party rules too. At the same time, he could play tough partisan politics with redistricting and became an expert on drawing lines not just in California but across the country. He helped to elect the young liberal Democrats of the Watergate class of 1974 and led them in demanding votes on committee chairmen. When the leadership said that there would be votes on those chairmanships in which a certain number of Democrats signed petitions, Burton got enough Democrats to sign petitions challenging every chairman. The leadership capitulated, and ordered automatic elections henceforth. Four committee chairmen were replaced-a warning that Democrats wouldn't elevate members who weren't sufficiently liberal or sufficiently capable. In 1960 Burton took part in a demonstration in San Francisco against the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1974 he abolished it, by the typically backhanded ploy of seeing that no Democrats applied to be members.
The House as it was run by the liberal Democratic leadership from 1974 to 1994 was Burton's handiwork as much as anyone else's. But Burton did not lead it. After the 1976 election, in which Speaker Carl Albert retired and Majority Leader Tip O'Neill ascended to his post without opposition, Burton ran for Majority Leader. He had some unusual allies. He cultivated Wayne Hays, the autocratic Chairman of the House Administration Committee who expressed nothing but contempt for young liberal members. With Hays's help he accumulated some unlikely votes in his race for Majority Leader. But in the final round he lost to Jim Wright by one vote, 148-147. It's a secret ballot, and Burton spent years figuring out just who had cast the decisive votes against him.
Nancy Pelosi at this time was involved in California Democratic politics in various capacities: fundraising, working for candidates. She went back to her home state of Maryland in 1976 for Jerry Brown in the presidential primary and he won on unlikely turf, with help from some old D'Alesandro allies. She became chairman of the California Democratic Party in 1981, when she had to walk a fine line between Speaker Leo McCarthy and Majority Leader Howard Berman who was challenging him; both were running candidates in Democratic primaries in a fight which neither won and which resulted in the elevation, with Republican votes, of Speaker Willie Brown. She was an organizer for the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. And, as the columnist Harold Meyerson wrote movingly, Sala Burton asked her to succeed her and her husband in Congress.
Pelosi did not start off seeking a leadership position. She got a seat on the Appropriations Committee and had to deal with a problem Phil Burton had left her: he put in an amendment saying that when the military left San Francisco's Presidio the installation would be turned over to the National Park Service. But the Presidio was expensive to maintain and renovate and threatened to eat up half the Park Service's budget. Pelosi had to find the money, and after several years she did. Starting in the late 1980s, she took a more open stand as the leader of a bipartisan group of members decrying China's human rights record, a stand directly opposite of that of her San Francisco neighbor, Senator Dianne Feinstein. In 1999, she began campaigning for a leadership post and made her move rapidly in 2001 when Minority Whip David Bonior, confronted with a partisan Republican redistricting, decided to run for governor. In a Democratic Caucus with many fewer Democrats than the Caucus that rejected Phil Burton by one vote-212 rather than 292-she assembled a coalition of Californians, liberals and, following the Burton example, some unlikely allies. Chief among them was John Murtha, from the coal country of western Pennsylvania, not far from Wayne Hays's coal country in eastern Ohio. She and her allies got Bonior to resign before his term in the House was up and when the Caucus met in October 2001 Murtha gave the nominating speech. Her opponent was Steny Hoyer of Maryland, whom she had known when they were interns in the office of Senator Daniel Brewster in 1963. Pelosi won 118-95. Whether she could have won in the more ideologically diverse caucus that rejected Burton was unclear, but like Burton she might have shaped her candidacy to suit her constituency.
Given the Republican leadership's determination to run the House despite their narrow majorities, a determination when Speaker Dennis Hastert held a 15-minute roll call open for three hours in order to get enough votes to pass the Medicare prescription drug bill in December 2003, it was not a hard choice for Pelosi to set a course of root-and-branch opposition to the Republican majority. In this she was as obdurate as Gingrich had wanted his Republicans before 1994. When Dick Gephardt, preparing to run for president, decided to resign as Minority Leader in November 2002, Pelosi was challenged by Harold Ford and won 177-29. After the 2004 election, she had no opposition.
For the 2006 cycle Pelosi chose Rahm Emanuel as head of the House Democrats' campaign committee. It was an inspired choice. From his days as a Clinton operative and his contacts in Chicago, he had developed great contacts for fundraising. And he chose a strategy that made eminent good sense. He extended his target list well beyond the Republican seats that seemed vulnerable on the basis of 2000, 2002 and 2004 election results. With partisan districting installed in many large states, with the Republican leadership aiding its weak members in many ways, there were not enough targets there to produce a Democratic takeover. Emanuel recruited candidates in unlikely districts and he searched especially for Iraq war veterans. He backed candidates where Republicans seemed susceptible to charges of encouraging a "climate of corruption," charges which were given strength by the (arguably unjust) indictment of Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and by the clear disgrace of Randy Cunningham and Bob Ney-all of this being underlined by the resignation of Mark Foley on the last day of the session in September and obscuring the Democrats' own corruption problem (the $90,000 of cash in Bill Jefferson's freezer). Not all of his long shot candidates came through. The Republicans' turnout efforts, stepped up from their success in 2004, helped save perhaps a dozen seats, and Republicans won more of the very closest races than did Democrats. Pelosi campaigned indefatigably around the country. Republicans tried to portray her as a dangerous San Francisco liberal, but that availed them little. The 232-203 Republican majority was transformed to a 233-202 Democratic majority.
As Speaker-elect and Speaker, Pelosi performed with smiling dignity but also with the sharp elbows she had shown in leadership races. She backed John Murtha for majority leader over Steny Hoyer. In an interview with Fox News's Brit Hume she said that Iraq was "a problem to be solved," not a war to be won, and she opposed George W. Bush's surge in January 2007. The rules changes the incoming Democrats made did not make as much institutional difference as those Burton had pushed through in 1974-election of committee chairmen, especially-or those that Newt Gingrich pushed through in 1994-six-year term limits on chairmen, which she kept in place. The House Democrats' reforms on transparency of earmarks did not go quite as far as promised. But they did pass the "Six for '06" agenda in the 100 hours promised-actually, 100 legislative hours. Committee chairmanships went in almost every case to members with seniority. But Pelosi effectively chose Bennie Thompson at Homeland Security when she made him the ranking minority member there in 2005, and she was obdurate in her insistence on ousting Jane Harman at the Intelligence Committee; she stumbled only when she first insisted on Alcee Hastings, an intelligent and active member of the committee but also a man who was impeached and removed from a federal judgeship by a Democratic Congress, then pushed him aside for Silvestre Reyes. To a greater extent than Gingrich in 1995, but to a lesser extent than earlier speakers, she deferred to committee chairmen. But not always. She set up a special committee to work on policies to combat climate change and reduce carbon dioxide emissions-an attempt to bypass Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (to whose opponent, fellow incumbent Lynn Rivers, she contributed $10,000 in the 2002 primary).
She had the advantage here that the incoming chairmen, most of them older and more senior than their Republican counterparts, who had soldiered on during 12 years in the minority, were all members of proven ability and integrity: David Obey of Appropriations, Ike Skelton of Armed Services, John Spratt of Budget, George Miller (her fellow San Francisco Bay area resident and Burton acolyte) of Education, Dingell of Energy and Commerce, Barney Frank of Financial Services, Henry Waxman of Government Reform, Tom Lantos of International Relations, John Conyers of Judiciary, Louise Slaughter of Rules, Jim Oberstar of Transportation and Infrastructure, Charles Rangel of Ways and Means. Republicans may have treated them as bogeymen in campaigns, but they have to respect them in committee rooms and on the floor. Some of them embarked quickly on bipartisan initiatives-Miller on reauthorizing No Child Left Behind, Frank on regulating government-sponsored enterprises, Rangel on trade agreements. Others (and some of these chairmen) embarked on partisan agendas and partisan investigations.
What are the prospects for Democrats to continue their control of the House and for Pelosi to continue as Speaker? In early 2007 they looked pretty good. On the negative side, it was hard to see how they could easily expand their majority. Only 8 House Republicans represented districts that were carried by John Kerry in 2004; 6 of them were hard-pressed in 2006 and might figure that, having survived a bad year for their party, they are in fair shape to face 2008. But there are no guarantees in an era of open-field politics that 2006 was the worst possible year for Republicans, and surely some of these seats will be contested again. Moreover, DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel's decision to seriously contest districts which on the basis of 2004 figures were not winnable paid off: the prime example is the 8th District of Indiana, 62% for George W. Bush in 2004, 61% for Democrat Brad Ellsworth in 2006. Of the 30 seats Democrats picked up, 20 voted for Bush in 2004. Might there also be other Bush 2004 seats which were not seriously contested in 2006 but which might prove vulnerable in 2008? Quite possibly, and the new DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen seems very much alert to that prospect. But Republicans also have targets: 62 House Democrats hold seats that were carried by Bush in 2004. By no means are all of these vulnerable, and probably most aren't. But in a period of open field politics, some which would not appear on conventional targeting lists may turn out to be up for grabs.
One thing that is likely to be different in 2008 is that the two parties will be defined to a great extent by their presidential nominees. In the 2006 election the dominant figure was George W. Bush. Democrats campaigned almost exclusively against him and made only minimal references to their own party's platform. Republicans were seen as his followers, though many tried to campaign on their own personas or issues. In 2008 Bush will still be president, and the Republican party's image will still bear his imprint. But a Republican nominee with a perceptibly different approach to issues and a different persona will tend to define the party also. Bush, as compared to at least some possible 2008 nominees, had over his presidency greater appeal in the South and rural areas and less appeal in the Northeast and in the suburbs of our largest metropolitan areas outside the South. A Republican nominee with greater appeal in the latter and less in the former will be well positioned to compete for electoral votes in some states which Bush lost narrowly in 2004 and some which were not seriously contested at all; he could afford to lose some percentage points in the South and Great Plains and still win just about all the electoral votes Bush won there. The political map with which we are so familiar may be altered, if not beyond recognition, at least substantially in 2008.
Moreover, Democrats will probably not be able to campaign simply as the anti-Bush party. One of the advantages the out party usually has is that its candidates are free to adapt to local terrain. Democrats in 2006 ran successfully as moderates or even conservatives in Indiana and North Carolina, Texas and Arizona. They were also able to run as full-throated Bush and Iraq war opponents in Connecticut and suburban Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Upstate New York. They may not have as much leeway to do that in 2008. The party's image will be set to a considerable extent by the character and issue positions of its nominee.
The presidential nominating process has been pushed back, so that both parties' nominees may be known after the contests held February 5, 2008. But that comes fairly late in the cycle of candidate recruitment and fundraising. Filing deadlines will already have passed in some states, notably Illinois and Texas, and will be coming soon in many others. Party strategists will thus be doing much of their recruiting and targeting in the dark. But the light is not always clear in open field politics.
For six of the eight years of George W. Bush's presidency the Senate has been almost evenly divided. From January 2001 to June 2001, it was evenly divided, with Dick Cheney casting the 51st vote to give Republicans the majority. From June 2001 to January 2003, Democrats had a 51-49 majority. From January 2003 to January 2005 Republicans had a 51-49 majority. From January 2005 to January 2007, Republicans had a 55-45 majority-not enough to prevail on many issues. Starting in January 2007, Democrats have had a 51-49 majority but of course that could be reversed at any time if a seat becomes vacant and is filled by a nominee of the other party. In early 2007 that possibility was raised by the sudden disability of South Dakota Democrat Tim Johnson. But Johnson has been recovering, and he may very well serve out the term just as Strom Thurmond did his up through his 100th birthday in December 2002.
Why is the Senate so evenly divided, when George W. Bush carried 31 states in 2004 that elect 62 senators? The answer is that Democrats have done a much better job of electing Democratic senators in Republican-leaning states than Republicans have done electing Republican senators in Democratic-leaning states. Republican gains in 2002 and 2004 came primarily from Republican-leaning states: Georgia and Missouri in 2002, and Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and South Dakota in 2004. The exceptions in those cycles were Minnesota which turned Republican in 2002 and Colorado which turned Democratic in 2004. After the 2004 election Republicans held 18 of the 22 seats in the former Confederate states; they had few more to gain, and in fact lost Virginia in 2006. Republicans have lost seats because incumbents with political disabilities have insisted on running for reelection when non-incumbents could probably have won: Arkansas in 2002, Montana in 2006. And Republicans haven't been able to seriously dent the popularity of incumbent Democrats from Republican-leaning states like Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota and West Virginia. In 2006 DSCC Chairman Charles Schumer did a brilliant job of recruiting, getting Bob Casey, Jr., the one Democrat way ahead of Rick Santorum, to run in Pennsylvania; getting first-rate challengers to incumbents in narrowly Bush 2004 states like Missouri and Ohio; backing Jim Webb and capitalizing on George Allen's mistakes in Virginia; backing Jon Tester in Montana against a wounded Conrad Burns and Sheldon Whitehouse against Lincoln Chafee in heavily Democratic Rhode Island. It was an "inside straight," as Schumer acknowledged; but an inside straight, however unlikely, still wins the hand.
Schumer was tapped to run the DSCC for the 2007-08 cycle and started off with a better hand than two years before. Fully 21 of the 34 seats up are held by Republicans, including four in Kerry 2004 states: Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Oregon. Democrats did very well in those states in 2006 and could field serious challengers in any or all of them. In addition, Wayne Allard's retirement left Democratic Congressman Mark Udall the favorite in Colorado, which went heavily Democratic in 2006, and subsequent retirements-of Pete Domenici in New Mexico and John Warner in Virginia-left attractive situations for Democrats. Of the 12 Democratic seats that are up, six are in Bush 2004 states: Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia. But at the beginning of the cycle only two looked vulnerable, Louisiana, where Mary Landrieu lost many black constituents after Hurricane Katrina, and South Dakota, where Tim Johnson's health made the outlook imponderable.
So who will control the Senate? The answer is that no one controls the Senate, no matter how big a majority one party or the other has. Majority Leader Bill Frist did not control the Senate, even in the two years his party had a 55-45 majority, and Majority Leader Harry Reid does not control the Senate, as shown by the fact that it took the Senate four months to pass just one item (the minimum wage) on the House Democrats' "Six for '06" agenda that they passed in 100 legislative hours in January.
It is a body of 100 men and women, most of whom think or thought that he or she should be president. It is a legislative chamber which conducts much of its business under rules that require unanimous consent for many matters and in which a supermajority of 60 votes is required for much that used to be routine business. The Framers created the Senate as a balance wheel, a cooling saucer for hot coffee, a place where superior experience and wisdom could prevent unwise and rash mistakes. With only one-third of its members elected every two years, with a fair number of its members free from political pressures because of their personal relationship with young voters in small or one-party states, with its rules allowing even the weakest and personally least regarded of its members to stop the forward motion of legislation for some precious period of time, with its allowance of unlimited discussion and non-germane amendments and its rules that require a 60% supermajority for passage of strongly-opposed legislation, the Senate supplies some caution to the enthusiasm of the House.
Before the ratification in 1913 of the Seventeenth Amendment providing for popular election of senators, the members of the Senate were elected by state legislatures and were something in the nature of ambassadors from the state governments to the federal government-in some cases, very high-ranking ambassadors. In the early republic they were great landowners and lawyers who were also political philosophers-Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun. In the late 19th and early 20th century, they were often wealthy industrialists of considerable intellect-Marcus Hanna, Boies Penrose, Leland Stanford, George Hearst, William A. Clark. After 1913 they were increasingly professional politicians-Republicans and Democrats who alternated in the Northern states with two-party politics and Democrats of great political skill and legislative acumen from the South. This is the Senate described by Robert Caro in Master of the Senate, his account of Lyndon Johnson as Senate Majority Leader from 1955 to 1961.
Before Johnson became Majority Leader, the post was of little importance. There was no majority leader at all until 1911. You will search through many histories of the Republican 80th Congress of 1947-49, a Congress which produced major partisan domestic legislation and supported a bipartisan Cold War policy before you find the name of the majority leader, Wallace White of Maine; the focus was all on committee chairmen like Robert Taft and Arthur Vandenberg. Johnson, operating in his first four years in a Senate closely divided between the parties, exercised extraordinary skills to produce an extraordinary flow of legislation, including the first civil rights act passed since the 1870s. But after Democrats gained 13 seats in the 1958 election, Johnson's power was diminished because liberal Democrats insisted on pressing for measures that, under Senate rules, could not be passed. Johnson's achievements between 1955 and 1959 created the idea, still lively, that the majority leader runs the Senate. A better understanding of the position's power came from the man who held it longest, Mike Mansfield, in a speech intended to be delivered on the day John F. Kennedy was murdered and which he only delivered in 1997 at the first Leader's Lecture, in which he argued that the majority leader was the servant, not the master, of the senators. Many people assume that the majority leader runs the Senate; what he does in fact is schedule business, and his schedule is usually subject to unanimous consent: He can stop things from happening, but he can't get things going if some significant body of opinion wants them stopped.
The Senate in which Mansfield worked and the Senate in which Robert Byrd, Howard Baker and Bob Dole were majority leaders was a Senate which was an incubator for presidential ambitions and an arena for legislative entrepreneurship, far less partisan than the House. The Senate in which Trent Lott, Tom Daschle, Bill Frist and Harry Reid have been majority leaders has been different. It is still an incubator for presidential ambitions. But it is less open to political entrepreneurship and more given to partisan battle. The filibuster was a rare procedure when it required 67 votes to defeat. Senators used it only on issues of the largest importance to them. But now that filibusters can be defeated by only 60 votes, they have become common-so common that it is constantly said that it requires 60 votes to pass major legislation. Points of order can also require 60 votes to overcome, and the Senate's parliamentary rules offer many more opportunities for obstruction. The impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 and the narrow and disputed victory of George W. Bush in 2000 heightened the partisan atmosphere: senators on both sides came to believe that the other side was acting illegitimately and to feel entitled to go full out to stop them. This seems likely to continue in a Senate whose majority leader, Harry Reid, is one of the most pugnacious men ever to have held the job, and whose minority leader, Mitch McConnell, is a strong partisan who is used to conducting political warfare over the long haul. The world's greatest deliberative body? Perhaps. But that may say more about the world's other representative assemblies than it does about the Senate.