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Busting This Year's Election Myths

By E. J. Dionne

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Elections provoke myth-spinning. Republicans are in danger of spinning away from a full appreciation of the magnitude of their defeat last week. Democrats could spin themselves into useless arguments rooted in the past and ignore the new opportunity American voters have offered them.

Some Republicans, including President Bush's political architect Karl Rove, are trying to say that Tuesday's vote was no big deal. Democratic gains were at or below the incumbent party's usual losses in the sixth year of a presidency, and, anyway, many of the Democrats elected this year are "conservative.''

Republicans believe this spin at their peril.

Many who play down the Democratic gains are the very same people who said six months ago that the Democrats had no chance of winning either the House or Senate. Incumbent-friendly congressional boundaries and the fact that many of the House and Senate seats Democrats needed to win were in previously pro-Bush areas meant Democrats needed a big and unlikely surge.

The surge happened. Votes are still being tallied, but it appears that the Democrats emerged with at least as large a margin in the popular vote in House races this year as Bush enjoyed in winning two years ago. If Rove could claim that Bush's narrow majority was part of a "rolling realignment'' to the Republicans, why is a comparable majority the other way insignificant? Democrats, by the way, also have an estimated 11 percent lead in the vote totals for Senate races and a 7 percent lead in governors' contests.

The notion that this election produced a different kind of "conservative'' majority is simply wrong. Yes, Democrats won in part by nominating moderate candidates in moderate areas. But every newly elected Democratic was, by any fair reckoning, somewhere to the left of the vanquished Republican, especially on Iraq and economic issues.

Moreover, Tuesday sent to Congress a pack of unapologetic progressives, including Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the Senate, and such new House members as John Yarmuth of Kentucky, Carol Shea-Porter in New Hampshire and Dave Loebsack in Iowa, among many others.

Some Republicans say that Sen. Joe Lieberman's re-election as an independent suggests that rejection of Bush's Iraq policies was not, to use Rove's word, the "determining'' factor in the election. But exit polls make clear that Lieberman won despite his support for the war, not because of it.

Connecticut voters disapproved of the war by 2-1, and nearly two-thirds favored withdrawing some or all of our troops. Lieberman, who enjoyed residual affection among Connecticut Democrats, managed to carry close to 40 percent of the vote among those who favored troop withdrawals, including a remarkable 29 percent among those who favor withdrawing all our troops.

Republicans make a mistake if they dismiss the depth of the Democratic victory and the disintegration of their coalition. Democrats now control 28 of the 50 governorships, many of them in previously red states such as this one, and picked up legislative chambers in seven states.

Democrats converted one-time Bush voters in large numbers and cut into core Republican constituencies. As National Journal's Tom Edsall has pointed out, Republicans lost ground among white men, married people and religious voters. Nationwide, one of every seven 2004 Bush voters backed Democratic House candidates. In Ohio, Brown won 20 percent of those who voted for Bush two years ago; in Montana, Democrat Jon Tester won 18 percent of the Bush voters. In the Ohio governor's race, Ted Strickland, the winning Democrat, won 30 percent of former Bush supporters.

But victory has not prevented the revival of what feels like an ancient feud between Democratic centrists, who are emphasizing the importance of moderate voters in Tuesday's results, and those on the party's left who point to the centrality of economic populism and impatience with the Iraq War.

To which the only rational response is: Stop! Moderates were, indeed, central to the Democrats' triumph because Republicans vacated the political center. But these are angry moderates. Many are unhappy about Iraq, less on ideological grounds than because the Bush policy is such an obvious failure. The new Democratic voters are a mix of social conservatives (especially in the South and parts of the Midwest such as Indiana) and social libertarians (especially in the West). Many (especially in the Midwest) are angry about the flight of manufacturing jobs overseas.

Holding this coalition together will require subtlety and an acknowledgement that the comfortable old battles of the 1980s and '90s are irrelevant to 2006 and 2008. The old arrangements are dead, a truth both parties need to recognize.

(c) 2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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