(Guardian Unlimited) The Democrats today claimed the first scalp following their victorious US midterm elections with the resignation of the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. The US president, George Bush, confirmed he had accepted Mr Rumsfeld’s resignation and said he had nominated Robert Gates, a former CIA director, to replace him. Speaking for the first time since midterm elections widely seen as a voter backlash against the handling of the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, Mr Bush said Mr Rumsfeld had agreed a “fresh perspective” was needed.
“After a series of thoughtful conversations, we have agreed that the time is right for new leadership in the Pentagon,” he said in a press conference at the White House.
The president praised Mr Rumsfeld as a “patriot who served this country with honour and distinction” and said he was “deeply grateful for his service”.
Senior Democrat figures had wasted no time in renewing calls for the president to sack Mr Rumsfeld, who has overseen the Iraq policy during his six years at the Pentagon.
Mr Bush said there was no question that Iraq had “something to do” with the election results and admitted his policy in the country was “not working well enough, fast enough”.
He said Mr Gates – who served as the head of the CIA during his father’s administration – would bring “25 years of national security experience” to the role.
The president congratulated the Democrats on a victory which saw them gain control of the House and overturn the Republican majority in the Senate, praising their “superb” and “disciplined” campaign.
He said he shared “a large part of the responsibility” for the Republican defeat, but added he was confident that the Republicans and the Democrats could work together to launch a “new era of cooperation”.
“The message yesterday was clear,” he said. “The American people want their leaders in Washington to set aside partisan differences.”
He also vowed that the US would not leave Iraq “until the job was done”.
The White House’s announcement that Mr Rumsfeld would be stepping down came shortly after it emerged that the Democrats had won the key state of Montana, erasing the Republican majority in the Senate with just one state left to call.
The Democratic retaking of the House of Representatives broke the long conservative monopoly of power in Washington, clearing the way for congressional investigations into the conduct of the Iraq conflict.
This morning, Mr Bush made the call he must have feared the most – to congratulate the new speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, who Republicans turned into a hate figure in the last days of the campaign.
Ms Pelosi, a tough, resoundingly liberal Democratic leader from San Francisco, will become the first woman ever to serve as the speaker of the House, where the Democrats gained 27 seats and were leading on two more.
She will be in a powerful position, appointing the chairs of the all-important House committees – which can launch inquiries and ask difficult questions about the Iraq war and other issues – and will control the legislative agenda in the chamber.
Ms Pelosi and her party will also have a powerful say over taxes and spending.
In theory, the job gives her less sway over foreign policy but, in her victory speech last night, she made it clear she would not be bound by such traditional constraints.
She said the electorate had made it clear that they wanted a “new direction in Iraq”.
The future of the Senate still hangs in the balance, with the state of Virginia yet to be decided and lawyers preparing to fight over the outcome.
The Democratic challenger in Virginia, Jim Webb, holds a lead of fewer than 12,000 votes out of 2.3m votes cast. A recount looks likely, which may delay the result for several weeks.
A Republican victory in Virginia would give the US vice president, Dick Cheney, the casting vote in a 50-50 split Senate.
Joe Lieberman, standing as an independent, won the Connecticut race, but has pledged to vote with the Democrats in the new chamber.
Both parties have asked lawyers to prepare to do battle over provisional ballots, absentee ballots, challenges to results from computerised voting machines and every other legal grey area.
The FBI has also opened an investigation into alleged fraud and intimidation of Democratic voters in Virginia.
Elsewhere, the Democrats made Senate gains in Missouri, Ohio, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.
The party was also celebrating holding the most state governorships since 1994.
Among other milestones last night, Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, became the first socialist in the US Senate, and Deval Patrick was elected governor of Massachusetts, only the second black governor in US history.
Keith Ellison, in Minnesota, became the first Muslim elected to the House of Representatives.
Cooperation between the White House and a Democratic majority in the House would require a sea change in political style on the president’s part.
On the basis of the most questionable of mandates in 2000, he governed as though he had won a landslide.
Gay marriage was one of the big losers in the election, with a string of ballot initiatives calling for a ban being passed. In South Dakota, however, a proposal to ban abortion under almost all circumstances was defeated.
Overall, the election continued a long political realignment in the US, leaving the demarcation line between a Republican south and a Democratic north-east and west even more pronounced.
The biggest Republican losses last night were “behind enemy lines” in the liberal east, holdovers from a more bipartisan age.
By that measure, the sharp geographical divide in US politics just got deeper.