As Democrats take control of Congress and President Bush enters the final quarter of his presidency, both sides should review the 2006 election results and their own immediate post-election evaluations.
That's because a note of triumphalism has infected Democratic rhetoric, and Republicans seem to be preparing for more partisan combat, ignoring the voters' message that they expect bipartisan cooperation to solve the country's problems.
Democratic consultant Joe Trippi exulted in The Washington Post in November that "Wham! The 2006 midterm elections are over, and the modern conservative era has come to an end."
Similarly, former President Bill Clinton's Chief of Staff John Podesta, now head of the Center for American Progress, declared that "the post-Goldwater/post-Reagan conservatism has been discredited as a governing philosophy.
"And, simultaneously," he said, "a new progressive movement has seized the moment to assert itself and restore credibility to a government that serves the common good."
Rep. Rahm Emanuel, Ill., the victorious former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, concluded his post-election analysis by saying that "all signs point to the fact that the Democrats won not just the House and Senate, but are re-emerging as the majority party."
Meanwhile, Bush has acknowledged that his party was whomped in the elections and declared readiness to cooperate with Democrats.
But in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, he served notice that he will veto bills he doesn't like, including tax increases, spending hikes, limitations on his war-making powers and anything he regards as "simply political statements."
Bush had it right in his final press conference of 2006. "The truth of the matter is," he said, "that the American people are sick of the partisanship and name-calling." And he laid out areas where cooperation might be possible, including Social Security reform, energy independence and immigration.
The November election returns — and subsequent polls — ought to serve as a caution to both Democrats and Republicans that the public really does expect action, not continued warfare. And the facts of political life make action impossible without cooperation.
According to Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, "the Democratic win is not a sign of political realignment. … A small Democratic turnout advantage notwithstanding, the electorate remains about evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans."
Democrats won 52 percent of the national popular vote for House members, just above what Republicans scored in 2004.
Strong partisans of both parties stuck close to home, with GOP candidates winning 91 percent support from Republicans, down just 3 percent from 2004, and Democratic candidates getting 93 percent from self-identified Democrats, up 6 percent.
"The outcome of this election," Kohut noted, "was determined by the shifting sentiments of independents and moderates. It is no exaggeration to say that the views of the least ideological voters decided this election for the Democrats."
According to exit polls, self-identified independents split 49 percent to 46 percent Democratic in 2004, but 57 percent to 39 percent Democratic in 2006. Self-identified moderates split 61 percent to 38 percent Democratic in 2006.
"No evidence suggests the country is moving culturally or ideologically to the left," Kohut concluded. "The potential exists (for Democrats) to make the same mistake that was made in 1994, when the GOP victory was viewed as signaling that the country was moving to the right."
A National Public Radio poll in December should be a special message of caution to Democrats. It found that only 18 percent of the electorate self-identifies as "liberal," versus 39 percent as "conservative" and 39 percent as "moderate."
According to Kohut, "The current election was not about social values or other broad ideological issues. It was a referendum on Bush and the GOP-controlled Congress," which won't be factors in future elections.
Liberal Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg said at a conference in December that 2006 was a "transforming election" in the sense that "it showed the country is alienated from polarized politics and (White House aide) Karl Rove's strategy of dividing the country to win elections."
He said it also was significant that Democrats made large gains among emerging voter groups, winning nearly 2-to-1 support from young voters and 69 percent support from Hispanics.
Emanuel's case for an "emerging Democratic majority" rests on those trends plus his party's winning in other demographic categories — suburbanites, income groups up to $100,000 a year and 19 districts carried by Bush in 2004.
But those very results, and the crucial role played by independents and moderates, demonstrates that the Democrats' hold on power is tenuous and depends on delivering results, not satisfying ideologues.
In the NPR poll, 71 percent of respondents said they preferred that Democrats "work together in a bipartisan way with Republicans to get things done," and only 27 percent said they should merely "enact the plans they committed to in the election."
It's not a good sign that, right out of the box, House Democrats are denying Republicans any role in shaping Congress' "first 100 hours" agenda and that Republicans are conjuring up memories of the Democrats' "old, abusive ways" prior to 1994 — which, of course, became the GOP pattern afterward.
The fact is that, with Democrats holding only a rather narrow ideological majority in the House, with the Senate split nearly evenly and with Bush in possession of a veto pen, the only way to get anything done in the next two years is by negotiation and compromise.
Deals are possible almost across the board — on entitlements, education, energy and immigration — if the two sides are willing to make them. If they are not, the public once again is likely to punish the side most blocking progress.
Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.