Next two years could bring interesting politics

As the evening wore on, it became increasingly apparent that while corruption and incompetence were factors, the pickup of two dozen House seats by the Democrats was largely about the war in Iraq.

President Bush tacitly acknowledged this Wednesday by announcing that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would step down, to be replaced by Robert Gates, a former CIA director (1991-1993) and career intelligence and national security official.

Although he made plenty of mistakes and has an abrasive personal style that sometimes makes enemies of people he needs to work with, it is imprecise to make Rumsfeld the scapegoat for what most Americans now see as the wrong war at the wrong time for the wrong reasons.

Rumsfeld’s vision of transforming the U.S. military into a leaner, more high-tech operation, successfully resisted by many old-school generals, will probably have to be implemented someday. And ultimately the responsibility for the war and its conduct lie with the president himself.

The problem is that almost nobody knows how to defeat a guerrilla-type insurgency, especially using conventional military means. Guerrillas don’t need to “win,” just not to lose. Few status-quo powers have defeated insurgencies in recent times, especially without a savvy political side to the struggle.

The resignation of Rumsfeld and the choice of Gates, who has long been close to the Bush family, bear the earmarks of having been orchestrated by the president’s father and his secretary of state, James Baker, who is heading a commission to reconsider strategy and tactics in Iraq and the larger “war on terror.” Gates has experience working with a Democratic Congress and seems adept at working with others.

Perhaps that is what is needed during what promises to be an increasingly lame-duck two years, but it may not be enough for the formidable challenges he faces.

Meanwhile, the administration must figure out how to work with a profoundly changed — though not as radically as some predict — Congress. Presumptive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will have to cope with enthusiasts in her own party’s base (and perhaps her own deeper inclinations) who would like to see the president impeached and run the House in a responsible, pragmatic manner. She must be aware that her party’s majority depends in large part on moderate and conservative Democrats who ousted incumbents in normally Republican districts.

If this means gridlock, we won’t complain. A government unable to undertake major initiatives is usually less harmful to the American people than a unitary government with an ambitious agenda.

Once the new majority organizes itself, knowing it can achieve little of substance legislatively, we can certainly expect countless investigations into every aspect of the administration’s behavior and American life.

Assuming Rep. Henry Waxman heads the Government Reform Committee, Halliburton and other contractors involved in Iraq and Katrina can expect subpoenas. John Dingell of Michigan likely will head Commerce and will investigate both government programs and what he considers capitalist outrages. Michigan’s John Conyers will head the House Judiciary Committee and will be aggressive.

Although the Democrats are unlikely to be able to repeal the president’s tax cuts, it would be surprising if the cuts were not allowed to expire on schedule. Democrats and the administration will talk about a compromise on immigration, but we would be surprised to see major legislation, let alone progress.

Add the campaign for president in 2008 (which has begun, if you hadn’t noticed) to the equation, and it should be an interesting two years.