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After the Fall is Over: GOP Must Pick Up the Pieces

By Tom Bevan

President Bush called it a "thumpin'." Feel free to call it whatever you want, but the bottom line is that Republicans got creamed at the polls. The bones of the election have been pretty well picked over by now, and with a few minor caveats it all boils down to this: Self-described independents showed up in decent numbers and voted overwhelmingly in favor of Democrats (57 percent to 39), mostly out of a frustration with President Bush and his party over lack of progress in Iraq.

Republican disappointment at the outcome was only intensified by Bush's post-election sacking of his secretary of defense, to whom he had pledged unqualified support just days before. Bush's explanation that he didn't want the decision to look like it had been motivated by politics didn't wash with fellow Republicans. Some complained Bush could have saved a number of GOP seats -- and perhaps control of the Senate -- by replacing Rumsfeld earlier in the year. Instead, Bush ended up hurting his party and looking terribly weak in the bargain.

Republicans are now sifting through the rubble and trying to find a way forward. As they readjust to being in the minority, there is hope among some that they'll make their way back to the days of the early '90s when Newt Gingrich led a party that was intellectually active, reform-oriented, and focused on principles of individual freedom and limited government. Setting aside the issue of Iraq this year, the Republican Party that got booted from office last week -- only 12 years removed from capturing a majority in the House -- did a poor job of representing most of those principles.

The only bright spot for Republicans at the moment is that the newly resurgent Democrats haven't gotten off to a good start either. The soon-to-be Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi started off smack in the middle of an intraparty battle for majority leader. After promising to lead "the most honest, the most open and the most ethical Congress in history," Pelosi decided to go to the mat on behalf of her ethically challenged pal John Murtha, putting the Democrats in an uncomfortable lose-lose situation.

Democrats in the House had the choice of damaging the credibility of their new leader by voting against her hand-picked candidate, or acquiescing to Pelosi and electing as the second most powerful member of their caucus a notorious pork-barreler who voted against ethics reform and was recently labeled "one of the most unethical members in Congress" by the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Democrats opted to cross Pelosi and picked Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland over Murtha.

Even beyond the leadership battle, however, Pelosi and the Democrats will have to adjust to the role of governing again. It won't be easy, especially now that they must assume at least some responsibility for the policy in Iraq. It also won't be easy for Democrats to resist the temptation, already voiced by some, to spend a great deal of time in the next session investigating rather than legislating.

Remember, too, that everything that transpires in Congress over the next two years will be done in the context of, and in some instances as a pretext to, the 2008 presidential race. Democrats must tackle issues like Iraq and the NSA surveillance program without coming off looking soft on national security. They'll also have to deal with the issue of taxes without reinforcing a signature stereotype and potential election pitfall.

Conversely, Republicans will probably have to face tough votes on immigration reform and stem cells, which could divide their base. Democrats will also confront them with votes on increasing the minimum wage and government negotiation of prescription drug costs (among others) in the hopes of portraying Republicans as against the economic interests of the middle class.

This year, however, Democrats succeeded in making the election a referendum on Bush and Iraq. As a result, they weren't required to offer an alternative vision to the public and got by "beating something with nothing," as the saying goes. That absolutely won't be the case the next time around.

And if Republicans can't get their act together, reclaim more independent voters and also repair the loosely knit coalition of fiscal hawks, libertarians and cultural conservatives that propelled them into the majority, they may find the election two years from now a disappointing rerun of the one just completed.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com

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