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Currents--University of Rochester newspaper

Election 2006: Blueprint for bipartisanship?

The nation’s political leaders have a small window to decide whether last week’s election results will cast them as opponents or partners in shaping international and national policy over the next two years, say Rochester political scientists.

With Democrats taking decisive control of the House of Representatives, and the Senate three longtime observers say there’s little doubt that the political landscape will change when the new Congress convenes in January.

But how dramatic that change will be depends on the actors, says Richard Fenno, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science, who compares the election and its aftermath to a three-act play. The second act begins in January when the two branches of government have to figure how they will interact with each other.

“The curtain has almost come down on the first act, but the second is crucial,” Fenno says. “How will the parties involved interpret what happened in the first act? If the president believes it was a repudiation of his policies in Iraq, what will he do? If the Democrats think the election was a repudiation of the president’s policies in Iraq, what will they do?

“There’s a six-month period where there’s a chance for them to work together,” he says, noting that the third act begins next Labor Day when attention turns to the 2008 elections. “It seems to me that the country will be better served if they cooperate.”

As one of the most closely watched midterm elections in several years played out, Fenno, Richard Niemi, the Don Alonzo Watson Professor of Political Science, and Gerald Gamm, chair of the Department of Political Science, were frequently called upon to share their expertise with national and local media and with many on-campus audiences. That role is likely to continue over the next several weeks as the new Congressional picture takes shape.

The Rochester professors say the flipping of control in the House and Senate is a significant victory for Democrats and a setback for President Bush.

“There’s no doubt that it’s a message of change,” says Niemi. “The question is, What’s going to happen next?’ We face the question of what can actually be done with a divided government.”

Niemi says few analysts expect a quick change in policy on Iraq, but the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld the day after the elections is a hopeful sign for those who want to see new policies in place.

In one sense, the Democrats are in a difficult position, he says. Elected by many voters with the expectation of change, the party’s scope will be limited as long as they are working with a Republican president and without a veto-proof margin of power. But he does expect the Democrats to push for changes in reaction to recent lobbying, bribery, and other corruption scandals.

“There was, it seems to me, a sense that people were fed up,” he says. “One hope, as much as anything, is that the culture changes a little bit.”

Gamm agrees that Washington will seem like a different place in coming months, noting that Democrats, in particular, have felt the sting of being out of power and will have to be careful not to look as if they are trying to exact revenge for previous slights. And, he says, unlike the Republican sweep of Congress in 1994, the 2006 class of Democrats are not all united in outlook, with many moderate and conservative Democrats among the newcomers.

That will require the Democratic leadership to pay close attention to how it builds support for new initiatives and for changes in policy.

“It will make politics in Washington virtually unrecognizable from what it has been in the past six years,” says Gamm. “There’s going to have to be more bipartisanship—or brinksmanship.”

“The question is whether Bush—in the last two years of his presidency—is willing to work with a House and Senate that will be dramatically different and whether the new leadership will be willing to work with a person they have spent the past six years vilifying.

“The Democrats will be pushed to be bipartisan, but whether they can pull it off is an open question.”

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