The Botcher-in-Chief: While a majority in the Senate may hang on recounting Jim Webb’s victory in Virginia, the worst numbers for Republicans are not subject to recount. National exit polls provide graphic detail of what happened Tuesday to Karl Rove’s dream of a Republican majority: The middle fell out.

In 2004, the GOP had the Democratic Party on the ropes. Democrats lost people over 30, high-school grads, college grads, and voters in every income category over $30,000. The Democratic coalition was down to two groups with nothing else in common: dropouts and post-docs.

What a difference two years make. In 2006, Democrats won or tied every age group, every education level, and every income group below $100,000. Nearly half the electorate identified themselves as moderates, and Democrats won them by a whopping 61 percent to 38 percent. After a long, six-year vacation, the voting bloc Democrats have always needed to be a majority party�the middle class�finally came home.

That translates into roughly a 53 percent to 45 percent margin in the national vote. As Speaker-in-waiting Nancy Pelosi and her colleagues must have thought waking up this morning�quite a majority, Madam, if we can keep it.

Will Democrats recognize what it takes to hold onto that middle-class majority? Will Republicans recognize that it’s gone missing? For both sides, that’s harder than it looks, and more important than many on either side will want to admit.

For Democrats, the first crucial step is that while millions of Americans on Tuesday bought a Democratic House (and maybe two), voters bought it on spec. Democrats will need to post two good years�in the Congress and the presidential race�in order to close the deal.

Democratic leaders in Congress got off to a good start Tuesday night and Wednesday morning in doing what an overreaching White House keeps failing to do: defining their mission and giving clear benchmarks for success. Michael Kinsley may find Democrats’ campaign agenda wanting�he should read the book instead!�and Jacob Weisberg is right that too many Democrats have forgotten that the United States can’t create jobs without trade. But the Democrats’ 2006 agenda has one great virtue: It tries to promise a handful of sensible steps (ethics reforms, a minimum wage increase, pay-as-you-go rules, the 9/11 Commission recommendations) that a new majority can actually deliver. Each of those promises is an opportunity to make a modest repayment on the trust that has just been given them.

For Republicans, 2006 can be a crushing blow�or, under the circumstances, the best thing that could have happened to them. As a governing philosophy, Bushism has been doomed to failure from the outset. The math never worked, because you can’t keep spending the same money you’re giving away, especially when you never had it in the first place. The theory never worked, either. Bush promised to be a reformer with results, but you’ll never be serious about reform or results if you’re not serious about government in the first place.

All that kept Bushism alive was the illusion of political expediency�and Democrats’ willingness to walk into the traps Karl Rove was setting. In the long run, Republicans are better off finding out that their failed governing theory is a political flop, too. This election will force them to go back to the drawing board and try to come up with a plan that is good for the country, not just a couple elections.

In contrast to Democratic leaders, who succeeded in striking measured tones at their post-election press appearances, President Bush’s news conference didn’t do much to contain yesterday’s damage. To escape being pinned, he probably needs to follow Schwarzenegger’s lead and pursue bipartisanship with gusto. Today wasn’t even a half-Arnold.

The president even stumbled when he tried to tell John Dickerson’s joke about Democrats and their drapes, blowing his chance at self-deprecation by rushing the punch line. Last week, John Kerry said botching a war is worse than botching a joke. Now Bush has really hit bottom: He has done both. …

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