Boston At precisely 4:09 p.m. on Election Day, a breaking news alert came into my e-mail courtesy of CNN. What could it be? The ultimate November surprise? A voter gone postal over the robo-calls? A candidate gone berserk at the election booth?
Noooo : Britney Spears Filed for Divorce from Kevin Federline. Stop the presses. Or at least the Web server.
This turned out to be an omen of things to come. Within hours some hardy Republican spinmeisters from bloggers to Bill Bennett were attributing the takeover of the House by Democrats to nothing more than another "six year itch." The relationship between the president and the people may have lasted three times as long as Kevin and Britney's marriage, but it had taken a natural downward course. Nothing personal, nothing political, just an itch that needed to be scratched.
If this spin makes you dizzy, pirouette back to the election of 2004. When it was over, the religious right claimed victory for "values voters." The headlines read, "Moral Values Drove Bush Victory" and "Faith, Values Fuel Win." Values was a code for being anti-abortion and anti-gay rights.
What infuriated many was the implication that anyone who voted based on the Iraq War rather than the culture war was not voting values. Anyone who wasn't a member of the religious right was cast as a member of the "Immoral Minority." Moral issues became the story line of the 2004 election.
So what happened to the values vote in 2006? On the abortion question, pro-life state legislators in South Dakota had tried to ban all abortions except those to save the life of the mother. They got their law overturned by a 10-point margin in a bright red state. Meanwhile in bluer places such as Oregon and California, initiatives to require parental notification for minors also went down.
The initiative to allow stem cell research in Missouri squeaked through, as did Claire McCaskill, the Democratic Senate candidate who supported it. The close vote - the Michael J. Fox ads notwithstanding - may encourage both sides to send this debate back to the scientists where it belongs.
As for gay marriage, to no one's surprise, bans passed in seven of eight states where they were on the ballot. The only good news for the gay rights movement is that the bans won by smaller margins than in 2004. Civil union is becoming the new moderate. The better news for the Democrats is that there aren't that many more red states left to put gay marriage on the ballot in 2008.
More to the point, this year "values" expanded beyond what politicos call "gays and God." Some of the change in weather was due to old-fashioned personal scandals bearing names such as Jack Abramoff, Mark Foley, and even evangelist Ted Haggard, whose gay-sex-and-meth scandal broke last week.
In Florida, Joe Negron had to run for Congress under the ballot name of "Mark Foley," after the congressman and page chaser resigned to spend the election in rehab. In New York, Republican John Sweeney's final blow to re-election was the published report of a 911 call from his wife saying that he was "knocking her around." And what can we say about Pennsylvania's Don Sherwood, the Republican congressman who admitted to an affair but denied he'd choked his mistress? That he lost.
Some of the success was due to more conservative Democrats. Bob Casey, a pro-life Pennsylvanian, only looks moderate on social issues next to the incumbent he beat for the Senate seat, Rick Santorum.
This time around, "values" also included initiatives to raise the minimum wage that passed in six states. These became a fairness stand-in, an alternative to the Bush economy that's given tax cuts to the rich and deficits to the grandchildren.
And then there were the big values issues: the war and the president himself.
Many Americans have long believed that starting a pre-emptive war on false premises was a moral issue. The Bush administration framed the war in the language of security and patriotism, win or lose. But voters in exit polls talked about arrogance, stubbornness, fiasco. They talked about the war and the president in the vocabulary of right and wrong. Wrong direction.
Democrats are still not adept at values-speak. Barack Obama is the exception, not the rule. Now, they come out of this campaign with a mandate to change the course of the war, the climate of the country and the coarseness of a political dialogue that has polarized the country.
The nasty campaign is over. Donald Rumsfeld is the first post-election victim. But the love affair with the president has ended and he's still living in our house, our White House. We return now to our usual programming. Kevin? Britney? Whassup?
- Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.