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Everywhere but Michigan, where the passage of Proposal 2 put a silver lining on an otherwise dark cloud, Election Day 2006 was somber for Republicans. While it had the authority to govern for eight years (and controlled the House for 12), the Grand Old Party and its legislative agenda didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Between an unpopular, expensive and (some say) unnecessary war in Iraq, excessive tax cuts during that war and ethics scandals too numerous to mention, Republicans have all but lost the faith of the American people. If the Republicans were a football team, they would have fumbled on the goal line in every game since 2002.

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Enter the Democrats. In their mission to be everything the Republican Party isn’t, they fielded a slate of fresh-faced candidates who were everything the GOP is – pro-military and anti-tax. It can hardly be said that Democratic electoral gains were a mandate – or even a qualified endorsement – for liberalism. No, it’s more likely that 2006 was a protest vote – against Bush, against the “party of scandals,” against anything representing the status quo. When you combine the abject failure of the Republican Party to lead effectively with the type of candidates the Democrats used to fill their national slate, all we really know from breaking down the results of Election 2006 is that Americans were unhappy with the nation’s direction, and they blamed the GOP.

Put simply, the “Revolution of ’06” this was not, which places Democrats in a dubious position looking forward to the 2008 presidential election. The Democratic Party can no longer claim to suffer from a stifled legislative agenda and a harsh political climate. With Democratic majorities in both houses, President Bush has no choice but to play ball.

The question is whether the Democratic Party has an original agenda and vision for the country or whether it continue to be a bunch of outside-looking-in minoritarians, even from a seat of power. Will we see Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) or Barack Obama (D-Ill.) risk all-too-important poll numbers to further the ends of their political base this close to a presidential year? Will the Democrats’ barking for change manifest itself with a bite of social programs and universal health care?

I don’t know, and you probably don’t either. Of all the things we know from Election 2006, it’s unclear – and probably untrue – that Americans are in any meaningful sense more liberal (or less conservative) than they were two years ago. And the reason we don’t know is because the Democratic Party has never made us choose. Liberal ideas aren’t even on the table, and they won’t be in the next two years.

To anyone na’ve enough to believe that Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) becoming Speaker of the House means the dawn of liberal rule, I ask: What’s the Democratic position on Iraq? Gay marriage? North Korea? The economy? On all of these issues, Democrats have had the chance to carve out and defend liberal positions, and they have declined to do so with any flare or conviction. Simply being “the other party” may have worked this election cycle, but it cost John Kerry dearly in 2004. And it’ll kill in 2008, because Democrats will no longer be able to claim they were denied the opportunity to lead.

The Democratic Party won big in 2006 because Americans preferred to trust the devils they didn’t know instead of the ones they did. But if the Democrats can’t figure out what they believe, and quick – all while handling the task of governance with grace and, yes, compassion – then America may be prepared to make that same gamble again in 2008.

In this space, I’ve written about Election 2006 as a watershed moment. I’ll now go a step further by saying that, for the Republicans, November 2006 will be looked upon as a blessing in disguise. Not only are the Republican Party and conservative ideas out of the spotlight for the time being – thank God – but Democrats will now have their time in the sun. I know better than to assume they’ll do anything but fry in it.

James Dickson can be reached at davidjam@umich.edu.

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