Democrats Storm Back from Oblivion

Looking back on Tuesday's election, observers are struck by the strength of Democratic gains across the board. The Democratic wave comes just two years after it looked like the Republicans might have achieved their sought after "permanent Republican majority."

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

OK, let's bring our political brain trust into this conversation. Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor; Mara Liasson is our national political correspondent. You guys still have brains left after all the work of this week?

KEN RUDIN: I hope so.

MARA LIASSON: Very little.

INSKEEP: Good morning. Good morning. Okay, Jim Webb says the issues that elected him were not just Iraq but also economic and inequality and the abuse of power. Is he right?

RUDIN: Well, let me say one thing. He said it wasn't about WMDs. I will say it was about W, which is George W. Bush and his handling of the war. And it was about M, too, the macaca word.

If George Allen, who had a gigantic lead three months ago going into this race - had he not self-destructed, I think George Allen would be still in the Senate.

INSKEEP: Mara Liasson.

LIASSON: Look, I think what you heard in that interview - I mean Renee was trying to get the, quote, “Democratic position on Iraq” out of Jim Webb, who certainly was somebody who thought a lot about this. And, you know, Webb seems to be allying himself with what he thinks is going to come out of the Baker Commission. The Baker report might rescue both sides in this debate, but I think what that shows you is how diverse this new crop of Democrats is.

Jim Webb, somebody who is clearly kind of an independent thinker, isn't spouting the party lines, if there even is one. And you've got this very diverse crop of Democrats coming in; some of them are conservative on social issues, some of them are mavericks like Jim Webb, who just became a Democrat in the last year. So that's going to give the Democrats even a greater challenge in terms of forging unity.

INSKEEP: And trying to be unified on this most important issue. Now what does all this say, all the election results say for Karl Rove, President Bush's political adviser who obviously suffered a defeat here?

LIASSON: Well, the Rove strategy was to energize the base, and that worked for him very well for a while. But this - the exit polls showed that this election was a kind of revenge of the middle. Both parties got out their base but independents broke, gave the Democrats 10 more points than they had in 2004; and that's why the Democrats won. They made small gains this year among evangelical voters, white Catholics, Hispanics.

Those gains might be temporary, but those were three of the groups that Rove had looked to to build his, quote, “permanent Republican majority.” And I would say that at least those hopes have been derailed for now.

INSKEEP: Democratic gains among rural voters as well in unexpected places and states.

RUDIN: But actually Democratic gains everywhere. I mean it's easy to say that Karl Rove has this national strategy, this major strategy of making the Republicans the permanent majority. We saw that in 1972, too, when Richard Nixon had this permanent national Republican majority, carried 49 states. And two years ago, there was Watergate.

INSKEEP: Two years later, there was Watergate.

RUDIN: Exactly. But it would also - what happened here is that we had a permanent majority in 2000 and 2002 and 2004, and then of course along came a very unpopular war and the mishandling of the war, and that's what spurred Democratic aims.

INSKEEP: Politicians and pundits certainly don't think it's too early to talk about how all this affects the 2008 election. I want to ask about the presidential candidates, who everyone's talking about.

But first I want to ask about this: How will it affect politics that you have all of these Democrats who won in Republican leaning districts and will be very vulnerable and perhaps feeling very vulnerable the next couple of years?

LIASSON: Well, I think it's a big pressure on the Democrats to really govern from the center, and that certainly was what all the leaders were saying yesterday - bipartisanship, the end of polarized politics. Don't forget, with two houses of Congress now, Democrats have a lot more ability to set the agenda than if they only had one.

INSKEEP: Which means you can pick what they vote on and what they don't.

LIASSON: That's right. But they have a lot more responsibility, too. And don't forget the margin in the Senate, very, very small. They're not going to be able to just do whatever their liberal wing might want them to.

RUDIN: I'll tell you, we saw the Republicans in 1994 - when they took over Congress - a lot of people thought maybe Newt Gingrich and the contract folks overreached, and I think that helped reelect Bill Clinton in 1996. But we also saw a very united Democratic Congress in 1990 and 1991 who focused on a key issue like healthcare.

Look, two years is a lifetime from now. Three months ago, George Allen was safe to win reelection. So who knows what's going to happen in ‘08.

INSKEEP: Three months ago, George Allen was a presidential possibility for 2008.

RUDIN: Measuring the drapes, as they say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: I did hear that phrase a little bit on the campaign trail. Who's a possibility now?

LIASSON: Well, I think the 2006 campaign really winnowed the field of candidates on both sides. At the start of this campaign, George Allen and Rick Santorum and Bill Frist were potential candidates. Certainly all three of their chances have been diminished, if not eliminated. I think John McCain, who made 346 appearances on behalf of Republicans - he was the most popular Republican on the campaign trail - I think his particular brand of kind of independent, bipartisan politics seems to be right in tune with the message from this election and these exit polls.

And Hillary Clinton, she also saw one of her potential rival, John Kerry, have his chances be diminished, if not eliminated, because of that gaff. I think it strengthened the frontrunners on both sides.

RUDIN: Back to John McCain for one second. If the polls are accurate - and I think they are - that showed Republicans losing badly among independents, it might be somebody like a John McCain who has shown a proven ability to appeal to these independent voters to get them back into the Republican fold.

INSKEEP: Well, Ken Rudin and Mara Liasson, I've really enjoyed talking with you - I'm not sure why - these last several weeks during the election season. Maybe we'll have to bring you back.

LIASSON: Thank you.

RUDIN: I can't wait, Steve.

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