MANY AMERICANS are breathing a massive sigh of relief now that the Democrats have apparently won both houses of Congress and President Bush has sacked his hawkish Defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld. At home and abroad, expectations are being raised that the power shift in Washington will rein in the Bush administration, restoring centrism, moderation and pragmatism to American foreign policy.
Not so fast.
To be sure, the president is making conciliatory noises about the need for bipartisanship. With Rumsfeld leaving, a Pentagon that had laid claim to running U.S. foreign policy might return to its more traditional focus on defense. And a Democratic majority on Capitol Hill will certainly constrain Bush's room for maneuver.
But expectations of an about-face on foreign policy are illusory. There will be more continuity than change; the ideological excesses of the Bush era are not yet behind us. At Wednesday's news conference, Bush did not budge on Iraq policy and stood by his bellicose vice president, Dick Cheney. It may well be up to the Democrats to ensure a change of course on foreign policy, but control of Congress does not give them the power to do so.
The U.S. Constitution grants the president a wide berth on matters of war and peace. Congress can chip away at the margins and seek to obstruct the White House, but it cannot dictate policy. Though it wields the power of the purse, Democratic leaders know it would be political and moral suicide to seek to force a withdrawal from Iraq by cutting off funds to U.S. troops deployed there. Such action would also enable the Republicans to shift the blame for failure in Iraq to the Democrats.
Even while Congress has been under Republican control, the Bush administration has dismissed its views on Iraq, the treatment of detainees and most other national security issues. There is no reason to think it will pay any more attention to a chamber controlled by Democrats. On the contrary, the White House is likely to become even more intransigent about the prerogatives of the presidency.
And the Democrats' disarray will make it easier for Bush to outmaneuver his newly empowered opposition. Democrats fared well on Tuesday because of the electorate's discontent with the Iraq war, not because the party had unfurled a compelling platform of alternatives. Indeed, Democrats are deeply divided over the best course of action in Iraq, with some advocating a timetable for withdrawal, some counseling partition and others standing by Bush. Similar confusion reigns on policy toward Iran and North Korea.
Still, even if the Democrats alone are unable to constrain Bush, many observers foresee the reemergence of a bipartisan center that will help wean the White House from the hard right. They say two years of divided government will compel Democrats and Republicans to work together, damping down the polarization of the last six years.
Fat chance. With the midterms out of the way, the 2008 presidential campaigns will go into full swing. The mud-slinging that preceded this week's vote will only intensify as the battle for the White House heats up. With the Democrats in the House likely to launch a host of official inquiries into the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war as well as multiple corruption scandals, the political atmosphere may well go from polarized to poisonous.
The ideological distance between Republicans and Democrats is growing, not diminishing. This week's elections knocked off many Republican moderates, in whose centrist districts voters swung to the Democratic candidate. The Republican delegation in the next Congress, shorn of many moderate stalwarts, will be further to the right.
Meanwhile, the election will strengthen the hand of the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Some of the Democrats soon to take up their new jobs on Capitol Hill are centrists. But the party's leaders -- from Nancy Pelosi, the likely speaker of the House, through the senior figures destined to head the key congressional committees -- will be pulled to the left by their constituencies.
There promises to be little, if any, common ground between the Democratic leadership and its Republican counterpart. In neither spirit nor substance is there much hope for the return of a bipartisan center.
Amid the political confrontation that will ensue when the 110th Congress opens in January, the Democrats may well be able to force changes to the Bush administration's domestic agenda -- which was running out of steam well before this week's vote. But Congress is less likely to be able to shape precisely those foreign policies that helped turn the electorate toward the Democrats. On matters of statecraft, Bush is destined to remain "the decider" for another two years.