Despite the promise of a new year, Americans entered 2007 with what can only be described as a tremendous hangover. Unfortunately, this collective headache has nothing to do with a fondness for Patron. The violent and corrupt cocktail served up in 2006 by the Bush Administration – with the help of the Republican Congress – proved a disagreeable mix for many Americans.
The November midterm elections were transformed into a referendum on the war in Iraq, congressional scandals, an exorbitant budget and ultimately, President Bush. In the end, voters rebuked it all, adopting the general consensus that anything is better than the status quo. Republican blunders had more to do with the change in congressional majority than Democratic achievements did, but regardless of the cause, Democrats have two years to plead their case to the public.
The first half of 2006 was marked by a general lack of outrage, which is as a testament to the power of fear. The Bush Administration constantly played the political version of the Kevin Bacon game, six degrees of separation – every policy decision can be linked to terrorism in six steps or less. Officials peddled images of Iraq as a breeding ground for terrorism, neglecting that American military mismanagement created the havoc necessary for terrorist organizations to gain influence.
As summer drew to a close, however, voters were tired of both wartime rhetoric and government corruption. They began to signal a desire for change. Republican incumbents tried to distance themselves from Bush, but most made their move too late. With the help of Jim Webb’s late victory in Virginia, Democrats clinched the majority in both houses of Congress.
Jan. 4 marked the beginning of the 110th Congress. Democrats took the opportunity to bring their extended families to Washington for photo-ops and press conferences. Those voters who worried Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would be too liberal to assume a leadership position were surely placated by the sight of her holding her infant granddaughter while she took her oath.
Although the 100-hour campaign launched by Pelosi is predictably behind schedule, the new congressional power class has a passion that seems on the verge of combustion – a grade of passion that can only be exhibited by those who have toiled as the minority position for years.
Over the next few weeks, Democrats will test their newfound strength. They have already introduced a minimum-wage hike and a proposed cut in college loan interest rates. The creation of a global warming committee – much to the dismay of the automobile industry and oil conglomerates – shows a renewed interest in environmental issues.
But it won’t be long before the spirit of cooperation promised by both sides after the election will be put to the test. The president’s proposed funding increase for Iraq will not only pit Bush against the Democratic leadership, but will test Pelosi and President Pro Tempore Robert Byrd’s ability to keep their own caucus in line.
The question of Democratic cohesiveness was raised even prior to election day. It became clear the party would be dealing with its fair share of political mavericks. Under the guidance of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) the party label was extended to pro-gun and pro-life candidates in order to secure Southern and Midwestern districts. Democrats finally realized that taking back Congress necessitates flexibility.
While the new Democratic caucus may seem too variant to function, those willing to look beyond wedge issues will find a group of legislators committed to addressing social-welfare issues. Although Iraq will certainly maintain an elevated importance in 2007, expect to see it balanced against domestic issues like health care and education.
James Madison stated in Federalist 51, “You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Although Madison opposed political parties, divided government has become the voters’ response to governments that refuse to restrain themselves.
The next two years of divided government may be the nastiest show of partisanship in a decade, and both sides are aware their performance will affect that the ’08 presidential landscape. The 110th Congress will be rife with larger-than-life personalities and subtle competition. Let the games begin.
Amanda Burns can be reached at email@example.com