"We knew the Senate would be close, but we thought we had enough margin in the House [258 seats, 40 more than a majority] to withstand anything -- and it had been ours for 40 years. The first we knew we might lose it was early on Election Day, when George [Stephanopoulos] got the early exit polls and said, 'We're in trouble.' "
Panetta described three stages of reaction -- something that may be a clue to what the Bush team will experience. "First," he said, "there were a few days of complete shock, glazed eyes, slow reactions -- what you saw in people after Hurricane Katrina. Then there was a period of anger, people asking, 'Why wasn't it anticipated? Why wasn't something done?' "
"And then," he said, "you get to the real question: How the hell do you make it work now?"
Panetta is right about the stages of grief that Democrats went through. Yet while both sides of the aisle were surprised by the magnitude of the Republican wave, Democrats had known all along that an ugly year was brewing. For one thing, a fierce anti-incumbent tide had been swirling for the past few cycles, stirred up by the House banking scandal and anger over congressional pay raises. Congress' low job-approval, which had been masked by Clinton's victory in '92, plunged lower in '94 when it went home empty-handed on political reform and health care—the way the current Congress went home empty-handed on the issue it deemed crucial, immigration.
Perhaps most important, and most forgotten, a huge number of Southern and red-state Democratic incumbents who had survived for years in hostile territory by steering clear of the national party had nowhere to go in a nationalized electoral downturn. Those members didn't get beat because they had gone fishing or forgot they had opponents. Most of them went into every campaign knowing it could be their last.
By mid-October of 1994, I knew plenty of Democrats who thought a Republican sweep was possible. But as the Bush crowd has learned this year, seeing a national wave on the horizon was no consolation when the principal political weapon in the White House arsenal is of little use—the ability to nationalize issues and elections.
There's one other way we knew a tsunami was coming, well before we got the network exit polls: We read about it in the newspaper. For example, here's the Page-One lede from the New York Times on the Monday before the 1994 election:
Republicans are poised to win more seats in the House of Representatives than they have held since Dwight D. Eisenhower was President. Indeed, after a strong campaign they could end 40 years of Democratic control in the House, history's longest period of one-party dominance there.
So much for the element of surprise.
The other reason to discount Rove's spin is that while a White House can do much over the long run to make a wave, it can do very little in the short run to break one. All fall, pundits have expressed surprise that the president and vice president are just as bad at disaster management on the campaign trail as in office. David Corn recently went so far as to wonder whether Bush and Cheney were losing on purpose.
But whatever the results tonight, it's not the Republicans' campaign that did it. They won or lost this election a long time ago. If they hold onto the House, it will be because the redistricting levees Republicans built over the past six years were strong enough to withstand the backlash their failed policies have built over the past six years. If they get ousted, it will be for running the country into the ground.
We'll find out soon enough whether Hurricane Anti-Bush is a Category 3, 4, or 5 storm, and whether it lost any force passing by last week's temporary low, John Kerry. If Republicans survive the storm, it won't be because they saw it coming. If they lose, it will be because they had it coming. ... 2:35 A.M. (link)
Saturday, Nov. 4, 2006