The unheralded story of the 2002 elections may be that there is room for cautious optimism about a new seriousness taking hold in America.
Of extraordinary significance are the Republican gains in the House and re-taking control of the Senate, against nearly all expectations. Particularly in the case of the Senate, this represents a serious takedown of the obstructionist Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Daschle and House Minority Leader Gephardt led their respective forces from obstruction in the Congress to destruction at the polls, where each had predicted success. The only concession to Sen. Daschle in this takedown scenario is the possibility that he may eke out a victory for his South Dakota colleague, Tim Johnson.
It is rare enough for the party that holds the White House to gain seats in both the House and Senate in a midterm election. Even more striking is that President Bush had longer electoral "coat-tails" this week than when he was elected in 2000. The Democrats have been left reeling by losing nearly every necessary contest. The victory for President Bush and the GOP is nearly total, retaining every Senate seat they had to, except the unfortunate Arkansas race, which was tainted by the personal foibles of the incumbent candidate, and picking up at least three necessary and stunning victories.
While the election results may not be cause for jubilation outside of GOP partisan circles, the political results recounted above may indicate a new seriousness at work among the American people. If so, this could provide a fresh opening for principled constitutional politics.
The president campaigned aggressively, and his rhetoric pointed to principled policy differences with the Democrats, as well larger questions about the purpose and functions of the federal government. Evidently he had a significant effect on both fronts, which seems to indicate a willingness in the electorate to listen and respond to thoughtful and reasonable, even if partisan, arguments. Combined with deep-seated concerns over physical and economic security, this provided an opening for deliberation about fundamental political and constitutional principles. Together, these factors give cause for new hope about our ability as citizens to deal effectively with pressing issues through a responsible political, rather than emotional, process.
The Republicans, having won a stunning midterm victory are now faced not only with the prospect of governing successfully, but of taking advantage of this opening to promote a more responsible civic discourse.