Who says elections don’t change anything?

On the day after Democrats took control of the House of Representatives and, by all indications, the Senate, word comes that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is going to leave the position he has held since the Bush administration took office in 2001.

Just a week ago, Bush said he wanted Rumsfeld and the Vice President to serve out the last two years of the second term.

The voters said different.

They elected Democrats who made Rumsfeld the poster boy for many of the Administration’s failures in Iraq. And those Republicans who survived in close races often joined Democrats in calling for Rumsfeld’s resignation.

The question now is whether Rumsfeld’s exit will mean anything. He carried out policies favored by President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Has the President decided simply to get rid of one man with a bad reputation, or is he thinking about changing course now that the American people have made clear their position?

The answer is likely to come in the confirmation hearings for the man Bush is proposing as a replacement for Rumsfeld: former CIA director Robert Gates. The Gates confirmation hearings should be the most significant that the Senate has held in a long time. The fact that Gates is a member of the bipartisan committee that is studying the Iraq War — a committee headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former US Representative Lee Hamilton — could make him a transition figure if the committee comes in with a recommendation of a policy shift.

But don’t bet the farm on that happening quickly.

Bush defended his Iraq policies at an early-afternoon press conference. The President made conciliatory noises, but he indicated that, while “the elections have changed many things in Washington,” he did not sound like he was preparing an exit strategy.

The Democrats, with their more recent experience of popular sentiment, ought to be doing so.