This is not the change you seek

While some Democrats celebrate what they see as a game-changing election, others have decided to start scaling back expectations already.  Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid both said yesterday that they had learned from previous failures of both parties in overreaching and antagonizing the middle of the electorate.  For those who voted “change”, this may sound a sour note through the revelry over Barack Obama’s victory:

Democratic leaders are tamping down on expectations for rapid change and trying to signal they will place a calm hand on the nation’s tiller.

“The country must be governed from the middle,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Wednesday. Repeating themes from election night, she said she plans to emphasize “civility” and “fiscal responsibility.” …

“There is a wave of hope that swept the country … not a mandate for any hope or ideology, but a mandate to get things done,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Wednesday morning on National Public Radio.

But to get what done?  A senior aide to Pelosi said he did not envision the House Democrats “going off on an ideological mission”, and pointed back to 1993 as an example.  Democrats won the White House back after twelve years along with majorities in Congress and decided to go after radical change in health care.  They discovered that the electorate wasn’t at all radical when they got bounced out of Congressional leadership for the first time in 40 years.

That probably means the Freedom of Choice Act will not be the first item on the priority list, as Obama promised Planned Parenthood.  There would be no better way to stir the hornet’s nest than to get abortion on demand, complete with federal funding, in the early days of the session.  Without a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, I doubt that Card Check will come up soon, either.  Democrats can’t afford to anger either constituency for long, but they will probably wait until some of the pressing budget and tax issues get settled first.

Democratic leadership obviously wants to play long ball here.  If they try enacting a sweeping shift to the Left, a suspicious electorate will almost certainly penalize them, especially in the Blue Dog districts that elect more conservative Representatives.  In 2010, the ground is much more even for Republicans in the Senate than this year, and a radical 111th would give the GOP some easy targets.  If they’re smart, they’ll kick the most controversial measures down the road a bit while trying to reassure voters that they can be trusted with one-party government.