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The Meaning of November 7, 2006

Political journalist Fred Bayles on what happened Tuesday, and what’s next

COM professor Fred Bayles says that “American politics has a long history of self adjustment.”

Politically speaking, America turned a bit more blue on November 7.

Reversing a 12-year losing trend, the Democratic Party swept into the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, with Democratic challengers wresting control of at least 28 House districts from Republicans, and picking up six additional seats in the Senate.

Democrats also nabbed six governorships from the GOP, including that of Massachusetts, where Deval Patrick became the commonwealth’s first elected black governor, defeating Republican Kerry Healey in a landslide.

Heavy voter turnout was reported across the country. Political analysts say discontent with President Bush and the continuing war in pushed many to the polls. Yet voter motivation is not always easily understood. For instance, while millionaire cable executive Ned Lamont tapped voter anger about Iraq to upset three-time incumbent Democratic senator and war-backer Joseph Lieberman in Connecticut’s Democratic primary, Lieberman then ran as an Independent and beat Lamont handily. And while Democrats gained a solid majority in the House, they did so on the strength of several candidates who differ sharply from their party’s leadership on issues such as gun control, abortion, and gay marriage.

To help make sense of the election outcome and the resulting political power shift, nationally and in Massachusetts, we talked with Fred Bayles, a College of Communication  associate professor of journalism, director of COM’s Statehouse Program, and longtime national correspondent for the Associated Press and USA Today. To view election coverage by COM students, click here.

BU Today: What does it mean for the Democratic Party, legislatively and in the next campaign for president, that many of its new seats in the House were won by socially conservative candidates?

Fred Bayles: I’d avoid making a generalization that the winning Democrats were all social conservatives. Some were wild-eyed liberals. In general, though, what you found was a lot of musical chairs played by the moderates in both parties — people like Johnson in Connecticut, a moderate Republican who lost, or Casey, the antiabortion Democrat who won the Pennsylvania Senate seat.

There is nothing new here. American politics has a long history of self-adjustment. What we saw was a coming to center of the Democratic Party in response to its days of wandering in the desert. The thing to watch now is whether this is a long-term power shift that will cause the Republicans to rethink their conservative agenda.

What sorts of issues and legislation do you predict will come in the next two years from this power shift in Congress?

Most pundits see a move toward a minimum wage increase, something that some Republicans would vote for. The Democrats will also want to adjust the Medicare Part B prescription drug plan by forcing the drug companies to offer discounts to the government. That was forbidden in the original, Republican plan. You probably will see an attempt to bring back a comprehensive immigration policy — the guest worker and citizenship path that the Democrats and Bush seemed close to agreement on this year. The Republican hardliners in the House don’t have the power to kill it under the new Congress.

Also look for a number of oversight committees and hearings looking into waste and fraud in Iraq and in Hurricane Katrina recovery. Some will say this is retribution by the Democrats. But there is enough evidence of malfeasance that it should be taken up.

With the new power alignments in Congress, do you think we’ll see more bipartisanship over the next two years, or more gridlock?

It could go either way, but I’m leaning more on the bipartisan model. The folks in Congress should see this election for what it was — dissatisfaction with the incumbents that was supercharged by the perceived bumbling of the administration on Iraq and Katrina. The fact that Congress got such poor marks in polls before the election should serve as a warning that the voters won’t tolerate much gamesmanship in this session. After all, 2008 isn’t far away. 

In every recent election, it seems like analysts name a group of people who came out to the polls in big numbers and made a big impact on the elections … from Reagan Democrats to soccer moms to security moms. Who might be that group this time around?

Not to be coy, but “pissed-off people” might be the honest phrase. I don’t put too much stock in these cute phrases. The exit polls suggest the dissatisfaction with the president and Congress was across the board. More married women voted Democrat than they did in the last election; so did married men.

Do you think the Republican Party or Republican candidates will now make any shifts in their election strategies in 2008?

It will depend on how well they read their base. There are lots of very conservative districts that will want to see a conservative candidate. There are also some once-conservative districts that are being suburbanized and therefore are more moderate. So tone will depend on the geography. As far as issues go, 2008 is a long, long way off.

There was a lot of talk about how displeasure over the war in Iraq was a decisive factor last night. And yet, one of the more explicit war-protest candidates, Lamont, lost the Senate race to Lieberman. How much of a factor was the war in the voting?

The Connecticut vote was more of an anomaly. Lamont ran a one-note campaign. Lieberman stressed his seniority and years of service for Connecticut. Nationally, I think there is a general weariness with the war and a wariness, too, of the reasons we went in and the pronouncements of what we are accomplishing.

What would you say was the biggest reason for Deval Patrick’s landslide victory over Kerry Healey?

Patrick is a new face with a terrific campaign presence. He isn’t from the old tired stable of Democratic candidates. He offered different groups, including the liberal Democrats, a post to rally around. Healey waited too long to establish her own persona. For many, she was that lady who put out all those scary ads and who was always standing in the background when Governor Romney had something to say.

Kerry Healey was heavily criticized for her negative campaigning in her run for Massachusetts governor. Do you think Deval Patrick’s victory will impact how readily candidates indulge in negative campaigning?

Perhaps in this state. You have to remember, Massachusetts has been an outpost in the wilderness when it comes to negative campaigning. That’s because we have really seen too many competitive elections in the state. No presidential candidate advertises in this very Democratic state. Why waste precious resources on a done deal? Same for Senate and House seats. So while the rest of the country suffers through campaign ads raising questions about what a candidate wrote in his novels (Virginia) or a candidate beating his wife and mistress (Pennsylvania), ads here have been pretty tame in comparison.