Right after Democrats won back control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections, pundits from major news outlets had, as one would expect, substantial amounts of political criticism for the party that faced major losses. What was most remarkable was the amount of tactical criticism and caution directed at the party that won major gains.
The center wins
Expanding upon a preferred theme of their pre-election coverage (Extra! Update, 12/06), political commentators providing the initial analyses of the election for the nation’s most influential news outlets downplayed the progressive aspects of the victory, characterizing the large new crop of Democrats as overwhelmingly centrist or even conservative. “These Democrats that were elected last night are conservative Democrats,” declared CBS News chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer (Early Show, 11/8/06). CNN’s Andrea Koppel (American Morning, 11/8/06) referred to the “new batch of moderate and conservative Democrats just elected who will force their party to shift towards the center.”
How long a trip that would be was disputed. The Washington Post (11/11/06) claimed that the Democratic Party of 2006 looked very different from the party in 1994: “The old-guard liberals and staunch union supporters in control then are giving way to a new generation of moderates with more temperate legislative ambitions.” The Los Angeles Times (11/14/06), on the other hand, saw the old guard as still firmly in place: “As the crop of freshly elected Democrats—including many younger ones who campaigned to the right of the party line—came to Capitol Hill for orientation Monday, they encountered a leadership dominated by mostly liberal, old-school Democrats.”
What media agreed on is that the newcomers were not like the Democrats of the bad old days. “This is not a majority made from cookie-cutter liberals,” wrote Eleanor Clift for Newsweek online (11/8/06). “Some are pro-life, some pro-gun, some sound so Republican they might be in the other party if it weren’t for President Bush and the Iraq War.” This echoed the thoughts of Fox News Channel’s Carl Cameron (11/8/06), who found among victorious Democrats “many pro-lifers, a lot of 2nd Amendment supporters, those who oppose gay marriage and support bans on flag-burning. Things of this nature.”
Not that many were “pro-life,” actually; NARAL (11/8/06) counted 20 pro-choice votes among the 28 announced House newcomers. Does anyone think this incoming class is going to make a Democratic-controlled House less likely to block new abortion restrictions? And gun control (for better or worse) hasn’t been a serious Democratic priority for more than a decade.
One ideological stance that actually was widespread among the incoming Democrats, and one that is likely to alter Democratic Party priorities, is an opposition to NAFTA-style trade agreements and an embrace of “fair trade” principles (Public Citizen, 11/8/06). But this key trend was little noted by the morning-after pundits, presumably because such views are considered akin to a belief in leprechauns by the media establishment (Extra!, 7-8/01). One exception was the Los Angeles Times editorial page (11/8/06), which did take notice—and alarm: “Democrats who wooed anxious voters with sermons about the evils of outsourcing will be reluctant to support freer trade,” the paper editorialized, deeming this development “bad for the country.”
Blue Dog dreams
In the Washington Post (11/8/06), Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei stressed that “party politics will be shaped by the resurgence of ‘Blue Dog’ Democrats, who come mainly from the South and from rural districts in the Midwest and often vote like Republicans. Top Democrats such as Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) see these middle-of-the-road lawmakers as the future of the party in a nation that leans slightly right of center.”
It’s not surprising that Emanuel would see the world that way, since he’s a centrist himself who has long been trying to push the Democrats to the right. But the Blue Dogs are far from a majority in the new crop of representatives (nine, according to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, 11/9/06), or in the Democrat’s total ranks (44), so their influence on the party as a whole will be far from overpowering.
What’s more, even those Blue Dogs are not likely to vote with Republicans on all Democratic Party issues: A Media Matters survey found (11/8/06) that all 27 new Democrats whose races had been called supported raising the minimum wage and changing course in Iraq, and opposed privatizing Social Security. Media Matters found only five who described themselves as “pro-life.”
But conservatives joined centrist Democrats like Emanuel in hoping that the newcomers would push the party to the right. CNN anchor Rick Sanchez posed a question (11/8/06) to National Journal writer John Mercurio:
Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks had a similar take (11/9/06): “On Tuesday the muscular middle took control of America. Voters kicked out Republicans but did not swing to the left.” Brooks wrote that Democrats “will have to show they have not been taken over by their bloggers or their economic nationalists, who will alienate them from the suburban office park moms.”
This supposed conflict between what Newsweek’s Clift called “the demands of the antiwar left” and “the more moderate voices that helped [House Democrats] win control of the chamber” was a prominent theme. Baker and VandeHei allowed how “the passion of the antiwar movement helped propel party activists in this election year,” but said that “the Democrats’ victory was built on the back of more centrist candidates seizing Republican-leaning districts.”
This assumption that war critics and centrists are two opposing camps is peculiar, given that 56 percent of exit-polled voters said they opposed the war; surely they represent the center of opinion, more so than the 42 percent who expressed support. In any case, opposition to the war was a widespread campaign theme among the “more centrist candidates” who captured Republican-held seats (TomPaine.com, 11/8/06).
Soon after the Democrats won on election night, media seemed eager to portray every decision or deliberation by the incoming leadership as a proxy for this larger ideological battle—a test of whether or not the party would tilt away from the media’s beloved center. For example, the Washington Post editorial page (11/14/06) weighed in against Rep. John Murtha’s bid to become House majority leader. The Post preferred Rep. Steny Hoyer, who “would reinforce [House Speaker-to-be Nancy] Pelosi’s announced commitment to govern from the center.”
The paper cited Murtha’s favoring of troop withdrawals from Iraq as evidence of his unfitness to be a leader, calling it “an extreme step that most congressional Democrats oppose.” Murtha’s “out of step” war stance happens to be supported by a majority of Americans (ThinkProgress, 11/14/06), and his resolution on Iraq was supported by over half of the House Democrats.
The pundits’ prescription for the Democrats hardly varies (Extra!, 7-8/06), so it was unsurprising to see them urging “bipartisanship” and a move to the right. “In private talks before the election, Emanuel and other top Democrats told their members they cannot allow the party’s liberal wing to dominate the agenda next year,” Baker and Jim VandeHei reported, citing the centrist Democrats whose analysis of the election results was nearly identical to that of media insiders. (Rick Perlstein made a strong case on the New Republic’s website—11/8/06—that Emanuel had less to do with the Democratic victory than did the online “netroots” activists that he despises.)
“The voters, tired of Washington’s divisive ways, want to see the two parties cooperate,” wrote Newsweek’s Clift. Oddly, though, 51 percent of those voters had recently told Newsweek (Newsweek.com, 10/21/06) that they wanted impeachment to be a priority (either high or low) of a new Democratic majority. It’s safe to say that people who wouldn’t mind seeing Bush tried for high crimes and misdemeanors aren’t particularly eager to see the representatives they sent to Washington working with him to advance his agenda.
Investigation = Inquisition
One thing that the new Democratic legislature must surely avoid doing, according to the media analysts, is investigating the old Republican executive: “The danger is that the campaign of ’06 will simply continue under the name of ‘government,’” wrote Dick Meyer for CBSNews.com (11/8/06). “Many Democrats, for example, are dead set on a new round of aggressive hearings about everything from pre-war intelligence to homeland security to the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The theater of Grand Congressional Inquisitions is generally an enemy of statesmanship.”
Los Angeles Times political columnist Ron Brownstein, a frequent champion of media-defined centrism, seemed to warn that Congress might function as a check on the executive branch: “A Democratic majority in either chamber could set the stage for two years of intense political conflict. Democrats would be likely to use the subpoena power that comes with majority control to aggressively examine Bush policies in Iraq and at home that they argue Republican lawmakers have failed to monitor.”
His paper’s editorial page (11/8/06) sounded a similar alarm, suggesting that Democrats “should not turn right-wing conspiracy theorists into prophets by promiscuously initiating investigations of the Bush administration, corporations or other tempting targets for televised inquisitions. Responsible oversight is needed, but partisan show trials have a way of backfiring. In investigating, as in legislating, the Democrats may discover that less is more.”
U.S. News & World Report columnist Gloria Borger (11/20/06) argued that voters want legislative action on immigration and the minimum wage, but “what they do not want is a slew of subpoenas by Democratic committees, finger-pointing about intelligence failures, scapegoating and more talk of filibusters.”
Former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw spoke bluntly on election night: “I don’t think the American people were saying tonight, ‘We want the subpoena power to be invoked in Washington.’ I think what they were saying was they want to find some solutions here, and we’d like to find a way for you all to get together in Washington, and begin to advance toward some of those solutions.” Brokaw added another reason Democrats might think twice about investigating Iraq policy: “But whether they start issuing subpoenas, I think that’s probably a pretty tough call for them, especially when you have young men and women in uniform, in harm’s way, still fighting the war in Afghanistan and in Iraq. And what kind of a signal that may send to them.”
It’s troubling, to say the least, when people in the journalism profession see “investigation” and “inquisition” as synonymous. The New York Times’ Robin Toner (11/8/06), who was exceptional in not using her morning-after analysis to scold the Democratic winners, also stood out in seeing the exercise of Congress’ investigatory powers as normal and perhaps even beneficial; of the Democratic House leaders, she wrote that “in many ways, their greatest power will be their ability to investigate, hold hearings and provide the oversight that they asserted was so lacking in recent years.”
Who won, again?
Other journalists couldn’t resist using their analysis of the Republicans’ political failings as a chance to get in generic smears of the Democrats—so much so that it was hard at times to tell which party actually won at the ballot box.
Former Washington Post reporter Tom Edsall began his November 25 New York Times column with this: “Can the Democratic Party become fully competitive? Is American liberalism dead, the 2006 election a last twitch of life before rigor mortis sets in?” Edsall went on to argue that in order for the Democrats to “revive, major tenets of American liberalism, economic and socio-cultural, will have to be discarded.” In service of his argument Edsall drudged up a pundit staple: Democrats rely on interest groups (“organized labor, minority advocacy organizations, reproductive- and sexual-rights proponents”) that are out of touch (“reliving battles of a decade or more ago, not the more subtle disputes of today”).
Edsall provided little evidence to back up these chestnuts, gesturing towards the 1994 crime bill as a lesson in how to engineer your own defeat. To hear Edsall recall it, “amendments added to win support from the left—most visibly, $40 million for midnight basketball leagues—caught fire on conservative talk radio, spread to the establishment media and soon became a liability.” The fact that the basketball leagues were promoted by Clinton’s Oval Office predecessor, President George H.W. Bush, was conveniently omitted by Edsall.
Like Edsall, Time magazine reporters Michael Duffy and Karen Tumulty recalled the Republicans of the mid-1990s: “The outcome brought an end to the Republican Revolution that began in 1994 but lost its way,” they wrote for Time.com (11/8/06), “as the party that came to Washington to cut government spending and clean up a corrupt institution ran into scandals of its own and found itself spending like drunken Democrats.” Presumably a knowledge of political history is a job requirement for being a political correspondent at Time; when Duffy and Tumulty look back on the past 50 years of U.S. administrations, do they really see them divided into spendthrift Democrats and frugal Republicans?
Suffice it to say that when Newt Gingrich and company swept into power in 1994, no one in the mainstream media was explaining Democratic losses by saying that the politicians who came to Washington in 1974 in response to Nixon’s corruption ended up “stealing like Republican crooks.” Or lecturing the victorious GOP that “major tenets of American conservatism will have to be discarded.”
Tom Brokaw offered a similarly foggy history lesson on election night. “If the Democrats do very well, will it be a huge philosophical shift? Maybe not, because a lot of these Democrats ran to the center. They didn’t run like they were running in 1972 again. They ran as more pragmatic public servants this time.”
For the record, the party breakdown of the 93rd Congress, elected in 1972: 242 Democrats, 192 Republicans.