It’s time for consensus

It’s time for consensus

Yesterday’s election was notable for many reasons — rejection of President Barack Obama’s agenda, the largest opposition pick up in 80 years, the perks of incumbency outweighed by anti-establishment sentiment among voters. Also notable is that although the country is fighting two wars and foiled a terrorist plot just days before the election, national security had almost no place in the contest. To the extent national security was even mentioned, it was in terms of our strategic vulnerability due to massive debt.

But now that the dust is settling on the dimensions of Republican victory, what is it likely to mean for the wars we are fighting? The president has picked up support for winning the wars, although the president himself is hesitant to use the word. Republicans elected yesterday will be concerned about the cost of the wars, but they are basically Jacksonians. They will provide the votes for the president to persevere, and to reverse his damaging timeline for drawing down forces in Afghanistan.

Walter Russell Mead perfectly captured the principled, strong armed, anti-establishment populism of this line of thinking in U.S. foreign policy. His article on the Jacksonian Tradition in the Winter 1999/2000 issue of The National Interest should be required reading for anyone wanting to understand where the 112th Congress is likely headed. The president himself might also want to read former President George W. Bush’s soon-to-be-released memoir, in which he considers a premature drawdown of troops in Iraq to have been one of his biggest mistakes.

Where the election will complicate President Obama’s war policies is that moderate Democrats were turned out of the House in large numbers; the president has a Democratic caucus in the House significantly more liberal than the Democratic Party. This could limit the president’s ability to let slide his end game for Afghanistan, especially if he is forced to trim his sails on other liberal shibboleths.

But the president is not going to carry liberal Democrats on the wars whether or not he sticks to his politically-driven 2011 drawdown. "Ending combat operations" in Iraq has not been the improvement in security the president promised, as Tuesday’s bombings sadly illustrate, and the president can ill afford such an outcome in "the good war." Liberal disaffection was less a problem for Democrats than the stampede of independents to the right; moderating his timeline to achieve the objectives of the war would likely appeal to them.

Working across the aisle on the wars may help build confidence between the White House and Republicans, providing a basis for compromise on other pressing issues, like debt reduction and entitlement reform. Americans like divided government. We are a people made great by distrust of our own government, a fact the Washington establishment often forgets.

Perhaps the lesson Democrats ought most to take from yesterday’s drubbing (and Republicans from the unsuccessful bids by some of our most divisive candidates) is Thomas Jefferson’s caution that great innovations should not be forced by slim majorities. A desire for consensus is fundamental to our political culture, probably the result of our great diversity. As a European once pointed out to me, "you Americans prize individuality, but you all dress alike."

Congressional Republicans are off to a good start with House Speaker John Boehner‘s poignant decline to grandstand, instead taking the message that voters want Washington to get to work. And much work needs to be done to bring President Obama’s national security policies into better alignment with our interests.