On the day after Election Day 2006, pundits from major U.S. news outlets had, as one would expect, substantial amounts of political criticism for the party that faced major losses. What is more remarkable is the amount of criticism and caution directed at the party that won major gains.
Virtually unanimously, the 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.”
“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‘ Carl Cameron, who found among victorious Democrats “many pro lifers, a lot of second 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 29 House newcomers. Does anyone think that 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 was actually widespread among the incoming Democrats, and one that is actually 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, 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 (11/8/06), deeming this development “bad for the country.”
In the Washington Post (11/8/06), Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei stressed that
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 top Democratic Party issues: A Media Matters survey found (11/8/06) that all 27 new Democrats whose races have been called support raising the minimum wage and changing course in Iraq, and they oppose privatizing Social Security. Media Matters found only five openly described themselves as “pro-life.”
It’s not just centrist Democrats like Emanuel who are pushing journalists to take this line: CNN anchor Rick Sanchez posed a question (11/8/06) to National Journal writer John Mercurio:
I heard this at least five or six times tonight from Republicans. They say sure, these Democrats that you’ve elected tonight are running as moderates. Some even sound like conservatives. They have crew cuts, social conservatives, talk about moral issues. When they get to Washington, they’re going to find their leadership is filled with liberals. Is there really a dysfunction there?
Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks put forth 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 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 ctivists 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, rather than the 42 percent who expressed support. In any case, opposition to the war was a widespread theme among the “more centrist candidates” who captured Republican-held seats (TomPaine.com, 11/8/06).
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 with 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 netroots that he despises.)
“The voters, tired of Washington’s divisive ways, want to see the two parties cooperate,” wrote Newsweek‘s Clift. Oddly, though, those voters had recently told Newsweek (Newsweek.com, 10/21/06) that 51 percent of them wanted impeachment to be a priority (either high or low) of a new Democratic majority. It’s likely that these 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.
One thing that the new Democratic legislature must surely avoid doing, according to the media analysts, is investigate the old Republican executive: “The danger is that the campaign of ’06 will simply continue under the name of ‘government,'” wrote Dick Mayer 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.”
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 seeing her morning-after analysis as an opportunity 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.”
Other journalists couldn’t resist using their analysis of the Republicans’ political failings as a chance to get in generic smears of the Democrats. “The outcome brought an end to the Republican Revolution that began in 1994 but lost its way,” wrote Michael Duffy and Karen Tumulty 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 it 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.”
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 (1973-75): 242 Democrats, 192 Republicans.