Thursday, November 09, 2006

Donkeys demolish elephants

The US ended its love affair with the Grand Old Party yesterday and handed the House to the Democrats in the mid-term elections. The Senate remains up for grabs with President Bush looking an increasingly isolated figure in his remaining two years in office. The fallout was immediate with Bush announcing the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. His replacement is 63 year old Robert Gates, Bush family friend and CIA director under Bush senior.

The senate race is particularly tight. At the time of writing, 99 of the 100 seats have been decided. 50 of these are Democrats (including two independents Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders who will vote Democrat on caucus issues) and the other 49 are Republican. The one undecided seat is in Virginia. Democratic challenger Jim Webb holds a slight lead over incumbent Republican George Allen. The closeness of the vote means the final result may not be known until 27 November. At the moment Webb leads by 8,000 out of more than 2.3 million votes cast. Webb claimed victory last night but Allen refused today to concede. An Allen campaign adviser refused to say if the Republican candidate would ask for a recount if he loses. Under Virginia law, he will have 10 days after 27 November to ask for a recount. If a recount reverses Webb's apparent victory, the Senate would be split 50-50, leaving Vice President Dick Cheney with the deciding vote for Republicans.

The margin in the House of Representatives was more emphatic and gives the Democrats control of the House for the first time in 12 years. As reps are elected for just two years, all 435 seats were up for grabs. The Democrats needed to win 17 seats to take control and as of Wednesday (US time) appear to have gained 27 additional seats. The Republicans are heading for a net loss of 26 seats. The last seat to changes hands was from the House’s only independent to the Democrats. The main factors for the Democrat win were the public anger over the conduct of the war in Iraq as well as scandals that engulfed a number of high profile Republicans in recent months. Seats held by troubled ex-senators Tom DeLay, Bob Ney and Mark Foley all fell to the Democrats.

Aided by public dissatisfaction with President Bush, Democrats won gubernatorial races in New York, Ohio and Massachusetts for the first time in more than a decade, and also won in Colorado, Maryland and Arkansas. Several GOP officials said they expected outgoing Illinois Speaker Dennis Hastert to step down as party leader and possibly even retire from Congress. Massachusetts elected its first African-American governor and first Democratic governor in 16 years, Governor-elect Deval Patrick. And for the first time in over 50 years, Maryland voters unseated an incumbent governor. 36 governorships were decided this year and post election, 28 of the 50 states now have Democrat governors. Arnold Schwarzenegger bucked the trend and was one of the few high profile GOP successes. Although the Democrats hold both senate seats in California, Schwarzenegger easily accounted for his Democrat rival winning by 15%. His success is based on a recent conversion to consensual politics. He has impressed this year by enacting greenhouse gas-cutting legislation and by increasing the minimum wage. Meanwhile Hillary Clinton also easily secured re-election as New York senator heightening speculation about her as yet undeclared bid for the White House in 2008.

A less high profile woman, Nancy Pelosi, is the new Speaker of the House. She is the first woman to ever hold the role. The 66-year-old mother of five has served as representative for San Francisco since 1987, and became House minority leader in 2002. Pelosi learned her politics early in life - her father was a congressman for Maryland and also served as mayor of Baltimore. She is also independently wealthy; her husband Paul made a fortune of $25 million from portfolio and property investments. Her wealth has enabled her to finance other Democrats’ campaigns. In return she has demanded discipline and loyalty. Her relationship with Bush will be critical to their mutual fortunes over the next two years. Their relationship to date has been marked by mutual disdain. Bush regards her as a high taxing Democrat and Pelosi is on record describing Bush as an incompetent leader.

Incompetent or not, Bush bowed to the inevitable yesterday and announced the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld was one of the key architects of the Iraq war. Congress members welcomed his departure as a sign that Bush is open to new ideas on Iraq. Critics said the outgoing defense secretary ignored advice from his generals, encouraged the abuse of war captives and failed to develop a credible post-war plan. Delaware Democrat Senator Joseph Biden hailed the resignation as a “death knell of the neo-conservative approach”. In contrast to Rumsfeld, his replacement Bob Gates is considered to be pragmatic and a foreign policy realist. The appointment is likely to lead to a more conciliatory approach on Iraq and the first step towards a phased withdrawal of US forces.

Political analysts are still digesting the consequences of a Democrat controlled Capitol Hill. Nancy Pelosi has said her priorities will include a higher minimum wage, the promotion of stem-cell research and a push to enact the recommendations of the September 11 congressional report. She and the president will now have to learn to live together; any legislation passed by a Democratic House will need Bush's signature. And with Pelosi controlling the House, he will need her agreement to get a subject on to the political agenda. At this stage, no one can say if the result will be consensus or gridlock.

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