Rarely has an election result been delivered with such force and clarity, and still left so many unanswered questions in its wake, as that of the 2006 midterm campaign. What happened is unmistakable. What it may portend is far less obvious, making the 2008 election, which already has begun, potentially the most important in a generation or more in shaping the nation's politics.
Democrats have been quick to claim that 2006 will be remembered as the end of a conservative era. No one doubts that the midterm election was a rejection of President Bush's policies in Iraq and of the Republicans' style of governance. But was it really a rejection of conservatism itself? It will take future elections to prove the Democrats' claim.
What the election was not, in the view of strategists in both parties, was a powerful affirmation of the Democratic Party, despite its takeover of the House and Senate. One post-election survey, conducted for the liberal groups Democracy Corps and the Campaign for America's Future, found that both Republicans and Democrats emerged from the contest with negative images.
"This is not an election where one party went down and the other party went up," said Stan Greenberg, whose firm conducted the survey on election night and the night after. "The story still has to be written on how this period becomes a period for Democratic dominance."
Tuesday's election left American politics in a remarkably fluid state. In just six years, the political discussion has moved from analyzing the reasons for the nation's 50-50 divide, to predictions that the Republicans were close to establishing a durable majority, to questions about whether Tuesday marked a pendulum swing back toward the Democrats.