Retreat From Exuberance

In his graceful concession speech after President Jimmy Carter and he lost the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan in a landslide, Vice President Walter Mondale said voters had "quietly wielded their staggering power." They did so again last week. The Constitution designed the House to be the federal institution most responsive to gusts of opinion, and this year, with a gale blowing against the Iraq war, the House functioned as the Constitution's framers expected it to.

So with Democrats soon to be rampant on Capitol Hill, in the House and the Senate, is the Antibullying Campaign Act an idea whose time has come? No. That legislation would federalize, by throwing money at, the problem of children being beastly to each other in and around schools. Some House Democrats, unfazed by the suspicion that their party lacks a sense of the ridiculous, have actually proposed this. Two of its sponsors will be committee chairmen in the coming Congress.

Now, however, Democrats have bigger fish to fry. More than any congressional elections in history, last week's turned on a single burning national issue. Control of Congress has changed because of deep discontent about Iraq. But Congress can, realistically, have little control over what we make of the mess we have made.

Democrats could have demanded the departure of Donald Rumsfeld, but they have been pre-empted. They could cut off funding for the war, but that weapon is too blunt to be used. Besides, both parties know that, for all the arguments about whether there should be a deadline for disengagement from Iraq, the Constitution, in effect, sets a deadline for setting a deadline.

There will be--the Constitution is persnickety about this--a presidential election in 24 months. Republicans do not want to run in 2008 with 150,000 U.S. forces still caught in the crossfire of Iraq's sectarian strife. Democrats know that if Iraq is still aboil and the U.S. presence essentially unchanged, their 2008 presidential candidate will have to offer what their 2006 congressional candidates were not required to offer--an actual plan for dealing with the problem. And each party's nominee would dread the possibility that his or her presidency would be instantly entangled in an inherited war.

There is another, if perhaps slight, reason to hope for, if not congeniality, at least some convergence of interests between the executive and legislative branches. It is that the election that has elevated Nancy Pelosi to the speakership has produced a more conservative House.

The Democratic contingent in the House that will convene in January, enlarged to majority status by the addition of moderates from Republican-leaning districts, will be more conservative than it was in the last Congress. And the defeat of numerous Republican moderates means that the Republican contingent in the House will be even more ideologically monochrome than it was.

House Democrats have their leader, and she has an agenda for the next Congress's first 100 hours. Yes, hours . Her aim, perhaps, is to make FDR's hyperkinetic "100 days" look lethargic. House Republicans once again need a leader. In November 1998, House Republicans were disoriented first by the resignation of Speaker Newt Gingrich (because of disappointing election results) and a month later by the announcement that his designated successor, Bob Livingston, would also resign (because of revelations about his private life). Seeking tranquillity, House Republicans chose Denny Hastert as leader.

By choosing him, an amiable master of the legislative process but not a man of ideas, they chose not to be led by California Rep. Chris Cox, a man less collegial but more cerebral. (He now is chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.) The result was the rise of a theory: "Earmarks"--targeted spending by members for their districts--could secure a permanent majority. That theory has been slain by a fact--last week's election. With Hastert's announcement that he will not seek a leadership position in the new Congress, House Republicans will have no choice but to reconsider how their behavior in recent years--particularly their ravenous appetite for pork--is related to having had leadership that was light on the ballast of ideas. The person Republicans choose as minority leader--John Boehner? Mike Pence? someone else?--will reveal what they think are the lessons of the election that deprived them of majority status.

For now, for the rest of the nation, "silence like a poultice comes to heal the blows of sound." (So wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes, father of the jurist.) Americans grateful for the end of the election cacophony and longing for lost civilities might remember what a former congressman said, late in life, as he fondly remembering the hotly contested 1800 election: "It was a pleasure to live in the good old days, when a Federalist could knock a Republican down in the streets and not be questioned about it."