IN "THE CANDIDATE," the classic 1972 film about the campaign for a California U.S. Senate seat, a Democratic challenger defeats a Republican incumbent with a slick campaign short on substance. The film ends with the victorious candidate asking plaintively: "What do we do now?"
That's the question Democrats will be asking themselves once they stop celebrating Tuesday's triumph in which they recaptured control of the House of Representatives after a dozen years and were within striking distance in the Senate. But it's already clear that part of the answer will be an attempt to parlay success in 2006 into a sequel in 2008, when the White House as well as Congress will be in play.
On some issues, maintaining that momentum will be bad for the country. Victorious Democrats who promised to "save Social Security" from privatization will be shy about exploring even modest changes in retirement policy (such as Al Gore's 2000 proposal for "Social Security plus"). Likewise, Democrats who wooed anxious voters with sermons about the evils of outsourcing will be reluctant to support freer trade.
Fortunately, on some issues, Democrats with an eye on 2008 can combine good politics and wise policy. Having talked the talk about a "culture of corruption," they can walk the walk by supporting robust ethics reform that would ban outright the meals, junkets and golf excursions lavished on members of Congress by lobbyists.
A Democratic House should be more willing to join President Bush in embracing comprehensive immigration legislation. Democrats also can do the country a service by implementing the (admittedly general) agenda offered during the campaign by the next speaker of the House.
Some of the virtues in that litany point toward liberal Democratic priorities, such as a higher minimum wage, more federal aid to education and a refusal to make permanent the Bush administration's tax cuts. But having bashed Bush and the Republicans for running up deficits, as well as embracing the Clintonite mantra of fiscal discipline, even a uniformly liberal Democratic majority would find it awkward to engage in a spending spree (beware of pandering middle-class tax credits). But the majority elected Tuesday includes several moderate Democrats for whom fiscal discipline is a core value, not an issue of convenience.
Finally, the new Democratic chairmen of House committees should not turn right-wing conspiracy theorists into prophets by promiscuously initiating investigations of the Bush administration, corporations or other tempting targets for televised inquisitions. Responsible oversight is needed, but partisan show trials have a way of backfiring. In investigating, as in legislating, the Democrats may discover that less is more.