Reaching for the Center: Realists Take Charge

The election whupping marked the end of George W. Bush's radical experiment in partisan government — and a plea for politicians to get serious about solving problems

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GERALD HERBERT / AP

Robert Gates, President Bush's nominee to replace Donald Rumsfeld, speaks in the Oval Office of the White House.

This was a big deal. Certainly, it was the endĀ of George W. Bush's radical experiment in partisan governance. It might have been even bigger than that: the end of the conservative pendulum swing that began with Ronald Reagan's revolution. Not only did the Democrats lay a robust whupping on the Republicans in the midterm elections, but--far worse--the President was forced into a tacit acknowledgment that the defining policy of his Administration, the war in Iraq, was failing. In 1994, when Bill Clinton lost both houses of Congress, he merely replaced his consultants and, liberated from the liberal wing of his party, sailed into the enforced moderation of divided government. Last week George W. Bush replaced Donald Rumsfeld, the blustery symbol of American arrogance overseas--and, after six years of near total control at home, had to adjust to a situation in which his vision had been rejected by the voters and his power seriously truncated. Rumsfeld was replaced by Robert Gates, who had been a junior associate on the foreign policy team of President George H.W. Bush and was well schooled in the cautious "realism" that marked the reign of Bush the Elder.

In fact, if there was a common strand in last week's Democratic victories and Republican defeats, it was the ascendancy of realists. The architects of the Democratic victory, Senator Charles Schumer and Congressman Rahm Emanuel, had calculated with cold-eyed efficiency which candidates the party would support, regardless of the extent of their orthodoxy. On the Republican side, realists seemed to be taking over the national security apparatus--even if was not yet clear that the President would follow their advice.

Bush's decision to delay the sacking of Rumsfeld until after the election will undoubtedly stand as one of the greatest mistakes of his presidency. It was a purely political decision, straight from the Karl Rove playbook: show no sign of weakness or indecision in the midst of a campaign--or, as Bill Clinton neatly summarized it, Strong and wrong beats weak and right. Not this time. "Strong and wrong" may have cost Bush the election. It may also have cost him whatever chance he had for a dignified exit from Iraq. His refusal to change his team and his strategy prevented an effective response to the centrifugal disintegration of Iraq over the past few months. The exit polls indicate that the war was not the main issue in the 2006 election: the general odor of corruption and incompetence emanating from Washington seemed to be the real motivator. But the Administration's stubbornness on Iraq, neatly symbolized by Rumsfeld's detachment from reality, certainly didn't help the G.O.P. cause.

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