GOP gains carry enormous responsibility

The Republican sweep of the midterm elections marks a historic victory for President Bush, who -- by personally recruiting serious candidates like Jim Talent in Missouri and Norm Coleman in Minnesota -- turned the vote into a referendum on his priorities for governing.

Never before had a president of either party won back the Senate during a midterm election. Bush is the first Republican -- and only the third president in the last 100 years -- to increase his party's majority in the House in the middle of a term.

These are stunning successes, especially for a president who squeaked to office two years ago. And it is being widely heralded as a rejection by the American electorate of those who questioned his legitimacy.

With control of both houses of Congress and the presidency, however, comes awesome responsibility.

No longer can the president blame leadership of the Senate for obstructing his initiatives. While Senate rules mean Democrats can still filibuster legislation to prevent it from coming to a vote, such a tactic is highly visible and politically risky. President Bush is now directly accountable for setting a clear agenda for Congress.

Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the president at times seemed hesitant to tackle difficult issues directly, leaving Congress to muddle through the details.

Since then, much of his focus has rightly been on terrorism and the rest of the world. As head of the ruling majority, he no longer has those luxuries.

The American economy remains stalled, and unemployment is rising. Along with the dangerous business of protecting America from terrorism and denying Saddam Hussein the means to develop weapons of mass destruction, Bush must put his economic team in better position to get the world's engine -- the U.S. economy -- kick-started again.

Refreshingly, the president did not shy away from difficult issues during the midterm campaigns, and the American people rewarded him for his seriousness. While Democrats attacked his policy initiatives without offering alternatives, Bush made direct appeals to voters for more Republicans specifically to help him enact his vision: make tax cuts permanent, repeal the death tax, pass a prescription drug plan, establish a coherent energy policy, strengthen Social Security, break the logjam on judicial appointments, address homeland security and bolster a united front towards Iraq.

Voters responded to his appeals by giving him a better position to lead. If he does not lead well, no political cover remains.

Of course, a political party's success can also be partly explained by the disarray of its opposition. Realizing that, the Democratic Party is engaged in some soul-searching about its vision for the future. Specifically, how much should it work with George Bush, whose popularity has become more clear, and how much should it seek to obstruct him?

Certainly, it is healthy to have a loyal political opposition. But Democrats would be wise to note that the American people have indicated they want serious and mature debate -- and constructive accomplishment -- not politics for politics' sake.

With the country in preparation for war and the economy struggling mightily, our country's leaders face a seriousness of purpose that is heavy. Both parties will be watched closely, but with his party's control of Congress, President Bush has the largest responsibility -- and little room for error.