Election Analysis

When Americans went to the polls on Nov. 7, 2006, they voted for a dramatic change in government. Republicans were pushed out of power in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. In addition, on the state level, Democrats replaced Republicans in many state-level offices.

This was trumpeted as big news and, indeed, a switch in the control of the legislative branch of government is big news. Yet, almost certainly, it means far, far less than most non-U.S. observers could imagine.

The fault lines in American politics tend to lie on geographic lines. When one party wins, it typically means it won victories on the other party’s “turf.” These victories tend to moderate the victorious party.

So, in this election, where the Democratic party picked up many seats in areas that typically elect Republicans, they also got a bunch of more conservative Democrats, often called Blue Dog Democrats, a derivation of the term Yellow Dog Democrats. This phrase became famous when, in the 1928 elections, Democratic Senator Tom Heflin declined to support Al Smith, his fellow Democrat, and endorsed the Republican, Herbert Hoover.

It caused such outrage across the southern United States that the phrase, “I’d vote for a yellow dog if he ran on the Democratic ticket,” became common. This phrase was adapted by Democratic Representative Pete Geren of Texas when he said the more conservative Democrats had been “choked blue” by their liberal colleagues. In 1995, the Blue Dog Democrats came together and now hold the balance of power in the House of Representatives.

When a party is out of power, it is easy to be inflammatory. When you are actually in the position of power, you know you will be judged based on what is accomplished. So the histrionics get downplayed.

Even before the Democrats assume majority control, they have been acting more responsibly. Nearly half of all Democrats voted to approve a pact giving normal trade-relations status to Vietnam and extend various trade agreements with the Andean nations, sub-Saharan Africa and Haiti.

This wasn’t an easy vote. The U.S. textile lobby fought the bill and got a number of normally pro-free trade Republicans to vote no. Nancy Pelosi, the presumptive Speaker of the House when the Democrats take over, voted yes. Charlie Rangel, an African-American from New York City who is slotted to be the chairman of the important Ways and Means Committee, was able to persuade 16 members of the Congressional Black Caucus to vote for the trade-liberalizing bills on the grounds that it was important to vote for expanding trade with poor nations such as Haiti.

This holds out hope for some specific legislation: upcoming votes on trade deals with Colombia and Peru and for the more broadly considered interests of expanded trade.

Many people in the world, unhappy with U.S. government policies, are happy to look at the U.S. elections and think that the American people have joined in their critique of U.S. policy. It probably isn’t so.

A panel of American luminaries recently gave recommendations on how the United States should proceed in Iraq. The report was pretty much “dead on arrival” because it didn’t so much suggest realistic courses of action as express wishes. So if one problem is Iranian and Syrian support for the insurgency, the report recommends talking to Iran and Syria and getting their cooperation to create a stable Iraq. The report is silent on what to do if our little chat doesn’t persuade.

We would like to turn security over to the Iraqis, but the Iraqi army is too small, too poorly trained, too politically divided, too poorly equipped, too bereft of experienced leadership, etc. These facts won’t change quickly just because we want them to. To train officers in the United States requires four years at a military academy and then they are still as green as grass.

Simply withdrawing from Iraq is not an option — the ensuing chaos would lead us to come back in. As Senator John McCain — a likely 2008 Republican candidate for president — explained, when we left Vietnam, we left it behind us. In Iraq, our enemies would likely pursue us. American policy on Iraq is not likely to change dramatically for some time.

Politically the United States is very closely divided, so very small changes in opinion can cause substantial swings in which party controls what. It is a mistake for people in other countries to assume such swings in political control reveal massive swings in American public opinion.

Most elections swing not on great issues of philosophy but on prudential concerns such as competency and corruption. For those who trade with America, this means that, despite governmental control swinging this way and that over time, the fundamental American attitude does not.

As a great commercial republic, we consider the trade a part of our fundamental right as Americans to pursue happiness. Few governments will thwart that drive for very long.