The mid-term elections showed that voters finally had their fill of Republican arrogance, incompetence and corruption. Now the Democrats have two years to show that they can do better for the middle class.
President Bush admitted he got a thumping and, like a good sport, invited presumptive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to the White House for lunch on successive days to try to establish a working relationship he never needed before. In their public remarks they were polite, and voters want them to get along, but it will be hard for the White House to rebuild trust after the president and his people have lied repeatedly to Democratic leaders as well as voters.
Victory certainly was sweet. In the days before the election, when polls showed Democrats with enough support to win a House majority and within striking distance of a Senate majority, some Dems started sounding like Chicago Cubs fans, thinking up reasons they couldn't win. Misleading ads run by the Republican National Committee and dirty tricks such as harassing and intimidating robocalls leading up to the election reinforced the suspicion that, once again, the fix was in.
But this time it was Republicans as well as Democrats who fell afoul of complicated voter registration rules and cantankerous electronic voting machines and Democratic wedge issues such as stem cell research and a higher minimum wage were used to bring working people to the polls. Even in the days after the election, when the returns from Montana and Virginia sent Jon Tester and Jim Webb to the Senate and gave Reid the Senate majority, some wondered if the Dems had been suckered into taking over Congress so that Karl Rove could blame them for the bad things that are bound to happen in the next two years as the bad decisions of the Bush years come home to roost.
We are confident that, if Rove was resigned to losing the House after the past year of unremitting scandal -- even if he tried to bluff reporters about polls showing otherwise -- he was confident of retaining control of the Senate. If Republican Sens. Mike DeWine and Rick Santorum were already toast in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and Lincoln Chafee was under the gun in blue Rhode Island, Rove must have thought there was no way the Dems could run the table against Republican incumbents in Missouri, Montana and Virginia.
A racist ad run by the RNC, linking Democrat Harold Ford, who is black, with a fictional white bimbo, helped seal the Republican victory in Tennessee -- and national Republicans really ought to search their souls about their use of racially divisive appeals in the South. (Don't even bother telling me that ad wasn't racist.) But in the other states, middle-class independent voters showed they had their bellyful of the Bush administration's arrogance and incompetence and the Republican Congress's failure to hold Bush, much less its own corrupt members, to account.
Counting on the fact that voters were mainly voting against Republicans and not for the Democrats, conservatives are hoping the Dems will overplay their hand and give the GOP an opportunity for a rebound in 2008.
Pelosi and Reid seem determined not to fall in that trap. As much as progressives would like Democrats to start impeachment hearings from the git-go in January, investigative committees likely will start modestly, first trying to figure out what has happened with the "war on terror."
Pelosi, who will be the highest-ranking woman ever in US government, has outlined a modest series of initiatives she proposes to pass out of the House within the first 100 hours of the new Congress. First she plans to put House rules in place that would cut the links between lobbyists and lawmakers. Among her priorities are an increase in the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour, enacting the recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission, which the GOP Congress ignored, and removing the ban on the government negotiating lower prices with drug companies. She also would cut interest rates on student loans in half and broaden federal aid for stem cell and other research.
These are all good ideas but they amount to picking the low-hanging fruit. Even if these bills make it through the Senate, which is vulnerable to GOP filibuster, Bush could veto several of them. To which the Dems should respond, "Make our day."
As we've said before, during the first 100 days the Democrats also should pass a bill sponsored by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the new head of the Judiciary Committee, to expand Medicare to cover all Americans. As we write this, representatives of US carmakers are asking Bush for help in providing health care, which drives up the cost of US-made cars by $1,000 over those made in nations such as Canada or Japan, which have national health care.
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the new Energy and Commerce chair, has supported universal health care in the past but Democratic leaders appear more inclined to support incremental health insurance subsides in this session. The health insurance industry has proposed an expansion of Medicaid for the poor and new tax breaks to help families buy insurance for their children. It would be simpler and ultimately more efficient to expand the Medicare system and guarantee coverage for everybody.
Other worthy bills would require electronic voting machines to print out ballots that would establish a paper trail for election audits and reinstate worker rights to organize unions, including the Employee Free Choice Act, which would require employers to recognize a union after a majority of workers sign cards requesting union representation. While they're at it, the Dems could move to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine for broadcasters, set up public financing of campaigns for Congress and propose a constitutional amendment establishing a right to vote and have that vote counted.
Bush probably would veto any of these bills if they got past a GOP filibuster. At least voters would know where they stood.
Democrats should hold the line on fair trade, insisting that any trade deals include enforceable labor and health standards. Pelosi and Reid have been good on trade issues, but they and their colleagues will come under great pressure from the multinational corporations to extend "fast-track" authority next year. They should resist that pressure. A fair trade deal should be able to withstand a fair congressional review.
Finally, Republicans hoped to use immigration as a wedge issue this year, but hard-line anti-immigrant Republicans tended to get beaten by Democrats who favored a more comprehensive plan combining enforcement with a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Immigration was very important to 29% of voters, according to an exit poll, but 46% of that group voted for Democrats, and only 52% for Republicans. But more than 70% of Latino voters favored Democrats this year, up from 56% who favored John Kerry two years ago.
If Bush wants to proceed with immigration reform, Democrats should insist on a plan that puts undocumented immigrants already in the country on the path to citizenship. We aren't going to deport 10 million people, most of whom are hard workers that our service industries would have a hard time replacing. So we might as well give them legal status. Then we can start assessing heavy fines and/or criminal penalties on industries that continue to import illegal aliens. And "guest worker" status is just another scheme to import foreigners to keep wages down, so Dems should rule that out. But that 70%-plus Latino vote for Democrats is the main reason the GOP doesn't want to turn any more Mexicans into Mexican Americans. -- JMC
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