Defeated Republicans have found solace in the fact that many of their victorious Democratic opponents are "social conservatives". They point to James Webb, who surprised everyone by winning the bitter and close Senate race in Virginia on Thursday, giving his party a majority of one in the upper house tom complement its decisive victory in the House of Representatives.
However, neither Mr Webb nor the majority of the Democratic freshmen who won elections this week can so easily be fitted into that category. Punching the air and holding up the dusty boots of his son who is serving in Iraq, Mr Webb told cheering supporters in Arlington that his election was as much a vote for economic fairness as it was for a change of course in Iraq.
One or two of his colleagues, including Bob Casey, the new senator for Pennsylvania, and Heath Shuler, a Democratic representative for North Carolina, are "pro-life" but the large majority of new Democrat lawmakers support the woman's right to choose.
More significantly a majority of the intake, including Mr Webb, are economic populists who are deeply suspicious of free trade and quick to blame China and other developing countries for the loss of US jobs. Some, such as Sherrod Brown, the new Democratic senator for the key Midwest state of Ohio, which has lost 200,000 manufacturing jobs since Mr Bush came to power, won the election virtually on that issue alone.
"We will focus on economic fairness in a country divided too much by class in an age of the internationalisation of American corporations," said Mr Webb in a victory rally speech that devoted more to the economy than all other themes combined. "At a time when profits are at a record high and wages are at a low, we will focus on bridging the class divide."
The New York Times got it. The headline of that article was Incoming Democrats Put Populism Before Ideology. In interviewing many of the new freshmen Democrats, they came to this conclusion:
Many of them say they must also, somehow, find a way to address the growing anxiety among voters about a global economy that no longer seems to work for them. There is a strong populist tinge to this class.
Conservatives tend to highlight the conservatism in the new class as a sign that Democrats are essentially ceding ground to the right on issues like gun control and abortion.
But many of these freshmen Democrats are hard to pigeonhole ideologically. Even among the most socially conservative, there is a strong streak of economic populism that is a unifying force.
Heath Shuler, for example, the former professional football player and newly elected House Democrat from North Carolina, is anti-abortion and pro-gun, but sounds like an old-style Democrat on economic issues.
“I was taught at a very, very young age about faith and personal responsibility, and through that, that responsibility was about helping those who cannot help themselves,” Mr. Shuler said. “If you look at what the Democratic Party stands for, it is about helping others who can’t help themselves.”
Like other Democrats, he supports legislation to increase the minimum wage and make college tuition tax deductible. He also opposes trade agreements that he says have led to a 78 percent loss in textile industry jobs in his state.
Similarly, Ms. Boyda of Kansas, a first-time office holder who relied on lengthy newspaper inserts to make her case to the voters, said, “The rural economy has been left out.” She added: “A lot of my district feels a great deal of insecurity about their jobs, their health care, their business, their family farm. They feel like they’re just kind of hanging out there.”
Carol Shea-Porter, a social worker and new House member from New Hampshire who considers herself a populist, said, “The theme of my campaign was, I’m running for the rest of us.” She added that no matter how much the Bush administration boasted of job growth, her voters “understood those were Wal-Mart jobs.” And, she said, “They understood when they talked about the stock market boom, that half of Americans aren’t even in the stock market.”
Jim Webb, who defeated Senator George Allen of Virginia, campaigned heavily on the idea that the middle class was increasingly at risk in an age of growing inequality. Bob Casey, who overwhelmingly defeated Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, said he looked forward to “a really intensive focus on health care that I hope to be a part of.”
That economic populism extends, for many candidates, to a new emphasis on expanding health coverage. Congressional Democrats who lived through the Clinton administration’s failed effort to create a national health insurance plan, which many believe was a crucial factor in the Democrats’ losses in 1994, have been wary of broad health legislation for years. (And being in the minority, they were unable to do much about it, regardless.) But the class of ’06 is adamant that something major can, and will, be done.
Representative Sherrod Brown, who is moving to the Senate from the House after beating Senator Mike DeWine of Ohio, argued: “Tell me a whole lot of Republicans won’t work with us on finding a way for middle-class kids to get a college education, to vote for embryonic stem cell research, to raise the minimum wage. John McCain is already out there talking about prescription drug issues.”
The entire article is well worth the read, with additional interviews and quotes from freshmen Dems Dave Loebsack (IA), Steve Kagen (WI), Ron Klein (FL), Ed Perlmutter (CO), Gabrielle Giffords (AZ), Joe Sestak (PA), and Tim Walz (MN).
Finally, some more on Mr. Shuler and the others from former Bruin Dem Ezra Klein (who's getting more and more TV time on MSNBC now, woo-hoo!), who debunks even more of that win-for-conservatism myth.
What it does have to do is punch back against the remarkably coordinated and quick campaign from the right (and sometimes the right includes the left) seeking to paint this election as some sort of victory for ... conservatism.
The ideological spectrum is a tricky thing. Take Heath Schuler, exhibit A in the rightwing Democrats meme. He's a cultural conservative, no doubt. But however far right he drifts on those issues -- which, under a Democratic Congress, he won't be voting on because they won't be brought to floor -- he's notably left on economic issues. Today, for instance, he's giving a press conference under the auspices of the United Steelworkers with Great Liberal Hope Sherrod Brown, where they'll discuss the need for new trade policies and their success in making active opposition to NAFTA a winning issue. That's not centrist Democrat. It's not moderate liberal. That's populism, kids, and it's leftier than polite company has allowed for quite some time.
So is Shuler right-wing? Seems like a tough case to me. Sherrod Brown? Liberal as they come. Defeating South Dakota's abortion ban initiative? Passing Missouri's stem cell initiative? All those progressives who toppled liberal Republicans in the Northeast? Somebody think they won in the blue bastions with roaring conservatism? Meanwhile, the most conservative of the serious Democratic challengers this cycle, Harold Ford, went down to defeat. Bravely fought race, tough environs, etc. But with an out-and-out liberal winning Ohio and a right-of-center Democrat losing Tennessee, we're really going to call this election for conservatism?
I don't think so. That distorted interpretation is being promoted by an array of right-wingers and self-styled centrists anxious to constrain the new majority's perceived range of motion. Some of them are conservatives trying to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Others are "centrist" Democrats look to grad defeat from the jaws of victory. Both are, for ideological reasons, afraid that a Democratic majority will govern like...Democrats.
Keep all this in mind about where the message of economic populism can get us.