It was a satisfying expression of the basic democratic principle of accountability. A government that performs badly is supposed to be punished by the electorate. And this government has performed badly on so many counts.
The Republicans created their defeat by focusing obsessively on the right-wing “base,” ostracizing not only the Democrats but their own party’s more moderate legislators. The conflict between the extremist House and the conservative Senate created a phony center, far to the right of the general public’s idea of where the middle ought to be. Yesterday, moderate Republicans in heavily Democratic states were done in by their party’s excesses. In Rhode Island, more than 60 percent of the voters told pollsters that they liked their Republican senator, Lincoln Chafee. But he was soundly defeated anyway.
The Democrats won a negative victory, riding on the wave of public anger about Republicans. The new House majority will certainly call the administration to account on any number of issues, but it will have to do far more than run investigations if it is to build on its victory.
For years now, the Democrats have been not only the minority party, but a particularly powerless minority, elbowed out of virtually any role other than that of critic. The House Democrats will have to shift from the role of tactical opposition to shadow government. They will have to pass bills — bills that might not make it into law, but that would provide a clear idea of what their party would do if it were really in control.
And while they are trying to build a new majority, the Democrats need to remember what happens when a party in power loses its way.