What I Saw at the Counter-Revolution

In defeat, Republicans are ready to lose some more


During the dark, long – well, not that long – days of total Republican dominance over Washington, reasonable people wondered if the Democratic party would ever pull itself together. The party ended every election day in defeat, its leaders and pundits blubbering about "close calls" and "strong results in Pennsylvania legislative elections" as the Republicans tightened their grip.

Not least of all, they went crazy. Democrats spent the years after the 2000 defeat obsessed with defeating Jeb Bush. They spent the years after 2002 trying to build a "counter-establishment" – the sort of intellectual infrastructure that took the libertarian and conservative right decades to build – with 18 months and a cash infusion from George Soros. They spent the months after 2004 suffering from Post Election Selection Trauma (look it up) and producing complicated schema that proved the election was stolen by electronic fraud. (To their credit, the commenting hordes on Daily Kos have a name – "fraudsters" – for the lefty commenters who push this stuff.)

It was almost exactly the midpoint of this era when blogger (and Reason contributor) Megan McArdle posited Jane's Law: "The devotees of the party in power are smug and arrogant. The devotees of the party out of power are insane." You could safely assume that Jane's Law would fall hardest on Democrats; indeed, on election night, Democrats I talked to were still grumbling about Republicans stealing a few races with "their usual bullshit." (This was before the Senate broke for the Democrats.) It's a little reassuring that Republicans, in the minority for the first time since 1994, are able to turn on a dime. They've gone insane, if they weren't already.

Look at the campaign they ran. They assumed that, since voters forgave the sputtering Iraq war in 2004, they would forgive it this time. More than that, voters would reward the party that stuck to its guns (literally) and reward it over a party that wanted to get out of Iraq. The president never stopped hammering the Iraq issue; the party never stopped accusing opponents of wanting to "cut and run." They kept hammering that hoary phrase even after they abandoned its Janus twin, "stay the course," never interpreting that voters had tired of that phrase because they'd warmed to the idea of leaving Iraq.

And look at how they dealt with the issue that cropped up (to my chagrin) in the CNN exit poll: Corruption. What did the GOP ever do about its raft of scandals, anyway? They responded to the problems of Rep. Tom DeLay by, first, trying to change the rules to keep him in power even if he was indicted, then pushing back the Congress's schedule in early 2006 to comport with his trial schedule. They responded to the political cornucopia of the William Jefferson scandal by defending a criminal Congressman's right not to be searched by the FBI. They dealt with the Foley scandal by wheeling Dennis Hastert out to "take responsibility"… by neither resigning nor apologizing. They had plenty of time, a full two years, to convince voters that they could right their own ship and reform spending, and pork, and earmarks, and control members of their caucus. They decided instead to commission the guy who directed Scary Movie 4 to make anti-Democrat ads.

But Jane's Law didn't really kick in until late Tuesday night, when Democrats were clearly overperforming expectations and winning all but one of the close Senate races. Getting buried by more than 100,000 votes under Democrat Ben Cardin, Maryland Republican Michael Steele responded by refusing to concede the race. His campaign blasted conservative bloggers' e-mail accounts to announce that the race wouldn't be over for weeks. Steele supporters like Michelle Malkin fell into line, lambasting the media for calling a race based on nothing but precinct analyses and statistical trends. "They don't call me Steele for nothing," Steele said, reminding voters of why they didn't trust him with the mentally taxing job of U.S. Senator.

Later in the night, across the state line, George Allen interpreted a tiny-but-clear rebuke in the state that had elected him twice as – yes, of course – as a reason to fight on. And watching the man who six months ago was considered a potential future president mumble and whine about "democracy" as he considered plunging the country into a weeks-long debate over whether he could find 8000 more votes to erase his deficit against James Webb, the Law held true. When Democrats win, they turn into gloaters. When Republicans lose, they turn into Al Gore.

But what kind of a night was it for the Democrats' temporarily allies, Libertarians? Not as good as Webb's night, but slightly better than Allen's. Libertarian Republican Butch Otter overcame a scare to become governor of Idaho. Ron Paul turned back his latest Democratic challenge. Anti-PATRIOT Act Democrat Jon Tester appeared to have defeated the odious, criminal, pork-addicted, bigoted, and adjective-friendly Conrad Burns. (He did it with a last-minute assist from Stan Jones, the infamous blue Libertarian.) In multiple key races, libertarian voters denied the Republicans their votes to pull the lever for the LP's candidate. The minority party will grumble about it. But what'll they do after that?

David Weigel is the assistant editor of Reason.