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First glance


From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby.
Voters rebuked House Republicans in the 2006 midterm elections one last time yesterday, ousting Republican Rep. Henry Bonilla from Texas' 23rd district in favor of Democrat Ciro Rodriguez, a former member who lost his seat and lost his first attempt to return to Washington.  Democrats complete the 2006 cycle without having lost a single seat, and now claim 233 members of the House to Republicans' 202.  Bonilla's loss also is another nail in the coffin for former Rep. Tom DeLay's Texas redistricting plan. 

Five weeks later, the Democratic wave that struck on election day remains forceful enough to sweep from office a Republican incumbent who had received 49% on November 7 and needed only to break 50% to win the runoff.  Compare that to scandal-plagued Democratic Rep. William Jefferson's win in his runoff last Saturday with 57%, despite getting just 30% of the vote on November 7. 

Absent any exit polls, we can't know how much of Bonilla's loss was due to dynamics particular to his massive border district, and how much to the same national dynamic that held sway on election day, voter discontent with congressional scandals and the Iraq war.  NBC political analyst Charlie Cook points out that Bonilla had no ethical issues himself and didn't make any missteps, but even so, "a group that Bush strategists have repeatedly labeled as critical for the future of the GOP, Mexican-Americans," turned on party.  The first NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted since the midterms, which will provide some clues, will be released tonight on NBC Nightly News and on MSNBC.com.  Other new polls out today show intensifying public unhappiness over the course of the war.

Certainly not much has changed on either the scandal or the Iraq front in the five weeks since November 7.  The House Ethics Committee decided that GOP leaders didn't do enough to prevent Rep. Mark Foley's inappropriate behavior toward House pages, but recommended no punishment.  And although President Bush is changing defense secretaries, he has not changed his tune on Iraq, and is now delaying his announcement of a "new way forward" until next year.

Bush aides reject suggestions that the reason for the postponement is because Bush hasn't yet made up his mind.  Spokesman Tony Snow yesterday said "that would be the wrong inference to draw.  You probably -- as we've said all along, it's a complex business and there are a lot of things to take into account."  Rather, the delay is because Bush has been asking a lot of questions during these consultation sessions and his questions trigger the need for his staff to research and prepare responses, officials say.  NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports that one official described the President as "driving the bureaucracy." 

Bush critics might argue the opposite: that this President who has cultivated an image of being "the decider" is now allowing his decision-making to be driven by a widening circle of advisors, and that he and his team are so intent on diluting the impact of the widely hyped Iraq Study Group report -- "the only bipartisan advice" Bush will get on Iraq, the group's co-chairs said -- that they're putting him at risk of looking like he can't make up his mind. 

The delay also means that the 2008 presidential candidates who are planning their own big announcements in January will need to work around two major Bush speeches.  Perhaps the White House is thinking of turning the Iraq address and the State of the Union into a pair, allowing them to focus the latter on domestic policy.