What to do after a repudiation election

Economist LAWRENCE H. SUMMERS was secretary of the Treasury under Clinton. He is a contributing editor to Opinion.

TUESDAY’S MIDTERM election victories for the Democrats in the House and the Senate were striking but not historically extraordinary. Of the 16 midterm elections since World War II, Tuesday’s was the seventh that could be classified as a repudiation election, a turnover that revealed widespread dissatisfaction with the policies of the president and his party.

The varied aftermaths of past repudiation elections show the difficulty of forecasting what will follow the Democrats’ victory.

After the 1946 election turned his party out of the majority, President Truman worked with the Republican Congress on big measures, such as the Marshall Plan, and won the 1948 election. The Eisenhower administration, by contrast, limped to its conclusion after the 1958 election handed Capitol Hill to the Democrats, and that Democratic congressional victory paved the way for John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960.

Majorities: Due to an editing error, a Nov. 11 commentary on the election indicated that majority control of Congress changed in the midterm elections of 1958 and 1966. Although the president’s party lost seats, the congressional majority remained the same before and after those elections. —

Subsequent presidents responded to repudiations by working with the opposition Congress; others failed to do so, with unfortunate results for their administrations. Lyndon Johnson signed no major legislation after the Republican takeover in the election of 1966, and Gerald Ford was unable to salvage his presidency after the post-Watergate victory for the Democrats in 1974. Ronald Reagan, however, recovered from his 1986 loss of the Senate and weathered the Iran-Contra scandal; his vice president, George H. W. Bush, won the presidency in 1988.

The modern model of a repudiation election was the Republican “revolution"of 1994, which gave the GOP control of the House and Senate. Bill Clinton was able to react effectively, in part because the overreaching Republican Congress lost public sympathy by shutting down the government for more than a month. Working with the Republicans, Clinton passed a bipartisan welfare reform bill and was reelected easily.

If history does not provide an unambiguous verdict on the aftermath of a repudiation election, it does suggest the political imperatives for the two parties. For Republicans, the challenge will be to generate bipartisan accomplishments while luring Democrats into overreaching and appearing unreasonable and out of touch. For Democrats, the challenge will be to establish credibility as a governing party. Their campaign was about the incompetence and corruption of the Republicans — it was not a referendum on a Democratic ideology. Electoral success two years from now will require the articulation of a broad vision for where the country needs to go and a comprehensive legislative program.

What does this suggest about likely policy outcomes? Domestically, the Democrats’ mandate and the Republicans’ fear of political embarrassment will combine to yield an increase in the minimum wage and reforms in policies toward oil and pharmaceutical companies. Indigestion caused by the massive pork consumption of the last six years — and recognition by Democrats that Republicans will make political hay out of large increases in spending — will lead to restraint in spending growth.

The large and regressive Bush tax cuts are neither likely to be made permanent, as the president wishes, nor completely repealed, as many Democrats would like. Big structural tax reform or action on entitlements are almost inconceivable.

The challenge for trade policy in the next two years will be primarily defensive: to resist protection rather than to further liberalization. Both parties want to respond to the economically anxious middle class that projects its anxieties onto trade agreements.

Predictions are more difficult in the international arena, which is likely to be more important. Americans have rejected a foreign policy that dangerously combines bellicosity and futility. Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation as Defense secretary suggests that the president has received the message.

There will be domestic and international pressure to curb the Bush administration’s “stay the course” policy with a managed withdrawal from Iraq, together with an acceptance of other countries’ views toward Iran, North Korea and Russia. Yet it is imperative to restore America’s credibility as a nation that can align its goals and results, and to convey that the United States has learned from but not been cowed by the setbacks of the last six years.

Forming an effective strategy for Iraq and addressing the troubled world will require bipartisanship. Here, the history of past repudiation elections provides grounds for cautious optimism. The passage of the Marshall Plan in 1948, President Reagan’s dialogue with Mikhail Gorbachev in the last two years of his term and President Clinton’s cooperation with Congress to extend financial support to Mexico after the 1994 elections show how the long view can prevail over short-term advantage.

This is as dangerous a moment in the world as after any midterm election since 1946. Whatever else happens, we can hope that a transformed Congress and a chastened president will, in the future as often in the past, find an effective way forward.