The Ecologist: What does the result of the election actually mean for American politics?
Isabel: This is the end of four years of one party rule and the first electoral defeat for Karl Rove and George Bush after many years of highly effective successful machine and constituency building. It is the biggest gain for the Democrats in a mid term election since 1974, the immediate post Watergate period. And I suspect that now as then it reflects not so much a new enthusiasm for the Democrat agenda as disillusionment with Bush, even in his core constituency. Exit polls suggest that recent scandals among the Republicans have been damaging: voters put sleaze and corruption at the top of their concerns, above terrorism, the economy, and Iraq. Values and immigration, which have been strong Republican themes, came last. The values question -- the culture wars that were such a strong theme in the last election -- suggests some fragmentation of the core religious base that Rove and Bush have relied on. Moral and religious issues are still there, but they have lost their dominant position -- in South Dakota, for instance, the abortion ban did not pass.
The Ecologist: What are the implications for the remainder of Bush's presidency if neither the House of Representatives nor the Senate are under his control?
Isabel: The end of one party rule also means the end of impunity. Congress controls the budget and the Democrats will use this to limit Bush's freedom of action. They may also use their new majority to open up the issues that Bush has managed to suppress: the way the war in Iraq was launched, the bungling of the occupation, the deficit. The Democrats have two years to prepare for the next election and if, they win that, they will be struggling to deal with the legacy of the Bush years, including the war. It is important for them now to establish the disaster in Iraq (for which they voted) as Bush's responsibility. The Bush camp, however, still retains enormous media influence, especially on television. We can expect Fox news to blame congress for anything that goes wrong from now on.
The Ecologist: The Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld is out, resigning in disgrace. What are the implications for Iraq?
Isabel: It is hard to see any immediate improvement in Iraq since the situation is well beyond external control and the Democrats will not be in charge of policy. They will, though, be in a better position to interrogate the Bush policy. It would be naive to expect and early end to the war, however. Even when a war is clearly not winnable, it is politically more convenient for any US politician not to be the one who calls it off -- and goes down in history as the man who lost the war. It took a long time with the Vietnam war and Iraq is much more complicated, with much more serious consequences. In the short term Bush's electoral misfortunes are likely to embolden his enemies and adversaries abroad.
The Ecologist: The Green movement has long willed a change in power. What are the implications for US environmental policy now?
Isabel: There had been a little softening in the Bush position pre-election, but perhaps the most significant aspect of the election is that the Democrats now control a majority of the governorships, opening up the possibility that more states will unilaterally adopt Kyoto principles and run their own environmental and climate change policies, as the (Republican) governor of California has done. This will not help in the international negotiations, but it will help the environment and slow the increase in US emissions. At a national level, the Democrats' environmental record leaves little room for heady optimism. The Democrats helped to undermine the Kyoto treaty and did not oppose Bush's Energy Policy Act in 2003, which slashed renewable energy funding and promoted fossil fuels, under the guidance of Vice President Cheney's Energy Task Force, a body in which the oil industry was well represented. The Bill passed easily through the House, with the support of 30 Democrats. When it was halted in the Senate, the Democrats submitted their own re-write which was close enough to Bush's proposal to pass easily. But the Democrats also rely on the fossil fuel lobby for campaign funds and in the past have resisted environmental regulation because of blue collar job anxieties. It remains to be seen whether Al Gore's recent efforts with An Inconvenient Truth have had sufficient effect to turn the Democrats green.
Isabel Hilton is the editor of Open Democracy magazine and the new international site, ChinaDialogue.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist November 2006