WASHINGTON – It's the question Democrats would rather not ask in their moment of revelry: Are their new majorities in the House and Senate sustainable?
What if the war in Iraq is over by 2008? Or what if it is still being waged despite Democratic pledges to change the course? What if voter antipathy toward President Bush is irrelevant in two years? After all, he will be on his way out.
"Who knows whether these things are long-term trends or not," Sen. Byron Dorgan (news, bio, voting record), D-N.D., said last week.
Voters gave Democrats control of Congress but did not undergo an ideological conversion. The Democrats' success had more to do with anger toward President Bush, weariness over the war and contempt for the corruption and scandal in Congress — a confluence of negatives that became a political force.
As some Democrats begin looking to 2008 and beyond, the challenge is how to turn antipathy toward Republicans into affection for Democrats.
"You can't count on that kind of a wave in every election by any means," Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said.
Sen. Charles Schumer (news, bio, voting record) of New York, the chairman of the Senate Democratic campaign committee, acknowledged that the Democrats' 51-49 majority in the Senate was the result of the narrowest of victories in six race. "Had 10,000 votes flipped we would have four seats not six," he said.
Democrats do see opportunities ahead.
In 2008, there are 21 Republican Senate seats up for election and only 12 Democratic seats. Eight of the Republicans in those seats won their last election with 55 percent or less of the vote.
In the House, where Democrats held 230 seats and appeared to be in line to win two more, all 435 members face re-election in 2008.
"The good news for Democrats is that we don't need a wave to keep the seats we have," Mellman said.
Democrats came into power calling for a change in course in Iraq. They promised to clean up government, create better economic conditions for the middle class and ensure cheaper drugs for the elderly.
"People are open to a longer term Democratic majority," Schumer said, "but we have to seal the deal."
Schumer proposed a three-step plan for Democrats.
It would begin with modest plans to increase the minimum wage, provide more tax breaks on college tuition, encourage greater energy independence and require drug companies to negotiate for lower Medicare drug prices.
Democrats then must work in bipartisan fashion to confront the war in Iraq and government deficits, Schumer said.
"Thirdly, we have to try our best to come up with a full vision and platform that points toward '08," he said.
To some Democrats, the party's biggest task is maintaining credibility on national security.
Since the Vietnam War, Republicans have held an advantage with voters on defense and security issues. But the Iraq war soured many voters on Republicans. By early fall, polls showed the public trusted Democrats more on resolving Iraq and trusted them equally with Republicans in combating terrorism.
Susan Rice, a foreign policy expert who was a senior adviser to Democrat John Kerry's presidential campaign in 2004, said Democratic candidates improved in the polls when they directly challenged Bush's war policy with more pointed ads and public statements
"Somewhere along the line in the last few months, the Democrats got some spine and got the courage to say out loud what they had been saying behind closed doors, which is that the president's national security policy has been an utter failure, has made us less safe, and that Iraq is Exhibit A for that failure," she said after Tuesday's vote.
But Rice said the Democratic gains on national security "are very tenuous" and the party should proceed cautiously on Iraq.
She said Democrats "won an early scalp in the form of Donald Rumsfeld" that will help them claim an initial victory and keep them from taking positions that might hurt their standing on national security.
Some Republicans say the GOP did not simply lose ground on national security. Wes Anderson, a Republican strategist who consulted in some of the closest Senate races, said that before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, voters identified the GOP as the party of fiscal conservatism, middle-class economics, national security and ethical reform.
"Our problem is our brand is broken," Anderson said. "Voters didn't walk away from the core principles of the brand. They just didn't think we represented them effectively."
A poll that Anderson's firm conducted in 12 of the most contested congressional races on Nov. 5-6, right before Election Day, showed the depth of voter anger. When voters were asked which party was "controlled by big corporations," 8 percent said Democrats, 51 percent said Republicans and 25 percent said both.
But the difficulties had been evident for weeks and the voters who were taking flight were independents. Indeed, exit poll surveys by The Associated Press and the networks found that 26 percent of voters who were with Bush in 2004 went for Democrats this election.
"In late September or early October we came to the rude conclusion that there was little we could do on the air or in the mail that would change people's minds," Anderson said.
While that could be good news for Democrats, Republicans take heart in the idea that voters still seem to adhere to conservative values.
"I don't think what you saw on Tuesday was a major political realignment," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. "A lot of people are saying Republicans stayed home. I think we really lost it among independents. The takeaway from it is you have to have a motivated base and you have to have a strategy to get to those independent voters."