November 08, 2006

Every so often, the national body politic awakens from its slumber, yawns, stretches, surveys the landscape in horror and swats aside the prevailing power structure.

That's what happened in unusually high turnout congressional elections yesterday that apparently returned control of the House to the Democrats for the first time since a similar swat-out in 1994, and at least narrowed the GOP Senate majority to a sliver.

Widespread opposition to the Iraq war, disgruntlement about an economy that rewards some but leaves many others out, and disgust at former Republican revolutionaries who abandoned their principles of fiscal restraint and seemed oblivious to corruption and abuse of power within their ranks - all took a mighty toll on the party in power.

As a result of this backlash, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who acquired her political skills as the daughter of former Baltimore Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., is set to become the first female speaker of the House. And St. Mary's County Democrat Steny H. Hoyer may win the second spot as majority leader.

If the drubbing proves not quite as severe as forecast, President Bush and his Republican team can't take much comfort. GOP candidates had the advantage of a highly sophisticated get-out-the-vote effort and many months of advance warning.

The message from voters is nonetheless loud and clear: They want a new plan for Iraq with a clear exit strategy, an economic policy that offers some benefits for the working class, and a housecleaning in Congress.

Exit polls also revealed corruption was a far bigger issue for voters than analysts anticipated, despite a wave of scandals that forced House members from office and sent two, so far, to jail. That suggests it's finally time for genuine reforms that reduce the influence of lobbyists in political campaigns, and eliminate the budget "earmarks" that allow lawmakers to return the favor through special-interest projects.

Mr. Bush should take yesterday's vote as powerful cue that he must make major course corrections in domestic as well as foreign policy if he wants to accomplish anything during his final two years in office.

Yet the Democrats must also take care not to mistake their mandate. The country remains narrowly divided; voters seemed mostly to be running away from Republicans, not necessarily toward winning Democratic ideas.

The challenge for the newly elected Congress will be to deliver on the promise of change with responsive, effective, productive, reputable government.

This new lease is good for only two years. Lawmakers should use it wisely.

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