Over-Reading the Election Returns

I’ve written several posts over the last two days rebutting bizarre things Republicans are saying and writing in the aftermath of the election losses. There’s some of that coming from the other side, two, and not just the Usual Suspects. Consider an email I received a few minutes ago:

From: John D. Podesta, President and CEO, Center for American Progress Action Fund

Date: November 9, 2006

Re: The End of the Grand Conservative Experiment

There is a longer-term significance to the 2006 election that transcends the shift in Congressional control and the collapse of the Bush presidency and its capacity to govern.

The 1994 elections, which were a much more sweeping change than we saw Tuesday, spelled neither the collapse of the Clinton presidency nor its capacity to govern. It will and should spark sober reflection on tactics if not strategy and will require that Bush be, to coin a phrase, a uniter, not a divider. He still has two more years in the most powerful office in the world.

The post-Goldwater/post-Reagan conservatism has been discredited as a governing philosophy, and simultaneously, a new progressive movement has seized the moment to assert itself to restore credibility to a government that serves the common good, and to provide practical leadership for a nation seeking a better future and a more secure world.

The results were unambiguous. Voters rejected the Iraq war and the failure of neo-conservative foreign policy. Voters rejected the redistribution of wealth to the top and demanded a return to policies to help the middle class and the least fortunate among us to get ahead. And voters rejected the accumulation of political power for its own sake and self-aggrandizement. The existing regime was deemed to be too corrupt, too inattentive to human needs, and too removed from the practical consequences of its inept foreign policy theories. For the first time in recent memory, these electoral results were cast not in gray, but in black and white.

Did any of this actually happen? Surely not.

Except at the margins, this election was not about ideology. While there was a lot of variation from race to race, at a national level Democrats ran by tying Republicans to George W. Bush. Aside from the war, there really was no issue in the campaign except The Republicans are Corrupt and Incompetent. That’s a pretty effective message for an opposition party, to be sure, but it’s not exactly the second coming of The Contract With America. It’s sheer fantasy to read the returns as a mandate for Progressive Values, whatever they might be.

Podesta argues “the 2006 elections have revealed that the four pillars of conservatism—a strong defense, lower taxes, less government, and family values—no longer sustain a voting majority and no longer command support as a governing philosophy.” I have two responses.

First, I’d love to see the Democrats run against those four pillars in 2008. Then, you’ll really see a mandate.

Second, the Republicans lost principally because they abandoned all of these principles except lower taxes. Sure, defense spending is at world record highs, but the lack of an articulated, plausible strategy for winning in Iraq and against the jihadists takes away the party’s natural advantage. Less government? Not so much. And, aside from the Sopranos, bribes, hookers, child molestation, and crystal meth are hardly “family values.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. just me says:

    My theory is that this election wasn’t so much a rejection of conservative values-social/fiscal/whatever, but was more a rejection of single party government, where one party controls all houses. I don’t think it is a mandate for liberal or even a proggressive agenda, it was more a repudiation of the guys with the R’s beside their name, whether that repudiation is permanent, or a 2006 blip remains to be seen.

    I also think you are right that the democrats did a nice job of connecting all the GOP races to the Bush white house and to Iraq policy. Now that the dems are in control of at least some portions of government, they are going to have to step up and do something-they can’t just point at the GOP and say “no” anymore or “we don’t like that idea.”

  2. Buddy says:

    I honestly don’t know what drugs these guys that are claiming that the election is a ‘repudiation’ of conservativism are taking, but I don’t think I want any. They cause delusional spewing of the mouth.

    The entire election, for the republican base, was about the fact that the current crop of republicans are really NOTHING about conservativism and all about pork spending and ‘scandal’ coverup.

    Real Republicans take their garbage out in public and kick it to the curb. The current batch only does so when forced to and then wants to scuffle around and make excuses for covering crap up in the first place. In other words, the current republican crop looks too much like Ted Kennedy.

    The fact that the Democrats ran the gammit on the election by electing mostly conservatives (I think) proves my point.

  3. Hoosier Dem says:

    Very true. We won this election because, well, the Republicans screwed up. Repeatedly and disastrously. These new Democratic voters weren’t voting FOR any agenda; they were sending a message that “What you’re doing isn’t working. Try something else.”

    And I’m heartened to see that it looks like Pelosi, Reid, et. al. understand this. So far the talk has been of reconciliation and bipartisanship. They seem to understand that if the Dems are perceived as not doing anything useful, they’ll be voted out too.

    As for Podesta, I chalk this up to residual euphoria–I mean, cmon, we haven’t really won a national election for ten years! There’s a large backlog of “We’re number one!” chants that have built up…

  4. Anderson says:

    the four pillars of conservatism—a strong defense, lower taxes, less government, and family values—no longer sustain a voting majority and no longer command support as a governing philosophy

    Better to say that they’re necessary, but not sufficient.

    You can’t have lower taxes, for ex, when you’re spending $4 billion a week on a stupid war in Iraq.

  5. jpe says:

    First, I’d love to see the Democrats run against those four pillars in 2008.

    Those pillars are like sunshine and puppies; no one’s against them. The questions that divide the parties turn on the costs that have to be borne to secure ’em.

  6. Bandit says:

    a strong defense, lower taxes, less government, and family values

    Those pillars are like sunshine and puppies; no one’s against them

    Really????????cDems are for a strong defense, lower taxes, less government?????????????? Come visit Massachusetts my friend.

  7. spencer says:

    As a percent of GDP defense spending it is 3.8% or at near post WW II lows. The only time it was lower was 1995-2004 when it averaged about 3.5%.

    In other words the Bush administration claims we are in a war for Western Civilization but is only willing to allocate less then 0.5% of GDP
    to fight the war. In Korea it rose from 3.6% to 14.2% and in Vietnam it jumped from 7.4% to 9.5%.

    How do you expect to win a war when you do not give the troops the resources they need to win?

    Maybe it is because if Bush were honest about the true cost of the war — remember one of the first casualties was his economic adviser Larry Linsey for trying to make an honest estimate — he would have to give up his tax cuts.

    Are we losing the war because his tax cuts are more important to Bush then winning the war?

  8. James Joyner says:


    Our spending on defense quite literally exceeds that of all other countries on the planet combined. And that’s without counting intelligence and homeland security monies.

    We are amazingly wealthy. Defense spending as a percentage of GDP is, therefore, a rather odd metric. We’re simply much, much wealthier than we were in 1950.