It ain’t a mandate but it is a second chance

Down at 1600 Penn, Dubya’s political strategists are rubbing their hands with glee and tossing around words like “mandate.”

At the other end of the Mall, Congressional Republicans in both the House and Senate talk of a legislative agenda that will let them do anything they want for the next few years.

Maybe I slept through that lecture in Politics 101, but since when does razor-thin victories in a handful of races add up to a mandate and a license to steal?

Bush and the Republicans accomplished something historic on Tuesday. They beat the odds, not only avoiding the loss of seats in a mid-term election but actually picked up seats and recaptured control of the Senate.

That doesn’t happen very often, but the hangovers from election night parties should be gone now and the harsh light of day should tell the Republicans that they had better be careful out there.

Republicans won control of both the House and Senate in 1994 and thought they had a mandate then to do whatever they pleased, even though voters told pollsters they cast their vote more as a rejection of Bill Clinton’s failed policies than any endorsement of Republican policies.

They say an elephant never forgets, but Republicans quickly forgot they promises they made before the 1994 elections. Term limits disappeared from the agenda once the party gained control. So did promises to reduce government spending. The Republican party passed the largest, most-expensive transportation bill in history, fattened by pork-barrel projects in districts of leaders.

When the House did manage to pass something that was actually on their list of policies, the legislation too often died in the Senate where Majority Leader Bob Dole didn’t want to piss anyone off and damage his upcoming Presidential bid. When he finally gave up the job so he could concentrate on losing his 1996 bid for the White House, the party replaced him with Trent Lott, one of he most ineffective and lackluster leaders in the history of the party.

Voters expressed their dislike of Republican control by reducing the GOP margin of control in 1996 and again in 1998. After the 1998 losses, House Speaker Newt Gingrich quit Congress, partly because he had failed to deliver on promises but mostly because the press was hot on the story that he was busy banging an Agriculture Committee staffer at the same time his party was trying to impeach Bill Clinton for nailing an intern and lying about it.

The voters reduced the party’s control in the 2000 elections, leaving the Senate at 50-50, giving the Republicans marginal control through Vice President Dick Cheney until Jim Jeffords got pissed and bolted the party, turning power over to the Dems.

But all the Democrats could do is stall, which didn’t sit well with voters either. Then bin Laden and his crazies hijacked planes, crashed them into buildings and Bush proved he could lead the country in a time of crisis.

This time around, voters liked what they saw in Republicans (primarily Bush) and gave the party another chance to prove they were ready for prime time.

And Tuesday night gave Bush what he didn’t get in 2000 – an election victory at the polls without help from the Supreme Court or the quirkiness of an Electoral College system that allows a candidate to lose the popular vote and still win the prize.

But that victory still comes from a sharply divided nation. Many elections Tuesday night could have gone either way. The key races that gave Republicans control (Minnesota and Missouri) of the Senate weren’t decided until early Wednesday morning. In South Dakota, the Democratic incumbent won by only a few hundred votes.

If it is true that an elephant never forgets then the party of the elephant had best remember the real lessons they should have learned since 1994.