Jewish World Review March 11, 2002 / 27 Adar, 5762
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- THE prevailing assumption, on both sides of the aisle in Washington, is that President Bush's continuing high popularity and job approval will bring about a Republican victory in the congressional elections.
This premise is fatally flawed.
Generically, voters don't vote that way anymore. They not only refuse to vote straight tickets, but they go out of their way to set up the checks and balances implicit in awarding different parties control of the executive and legislative branches of government.
Just follow the past 20 years of elections. In 1986, voters gave the Democrats control of the Senate with Ronald Reagan in the White House and two more years to run on his term (the election, remember, was before the Iran Contra scandal broke). In 1988, with a Bush victory certain, they kept the Democrats in charge. Only amid the recession and the three way split of 1992 did the voters give one party control of both Congress and the White House.
Two years later, and for the balance of the Clinton presidency, voters opted for divided control again. In 2000, with a Bush victory seeming far more certain than it turned out to be, voters broke even in the Senate, leading to a loss of GOP control.
Why do voters inflict such frustrations on their politicians? Part of the reason taps into the fundamental conundrum of American politics. There are two parties and three groups of voters: Democrats, Republicans and Independents. Dividing three into two is the basic equation of our electoral math.
But both parties richly deserve voter distrust. The scars of 1993-94 assure that Democrats will not soon again be trusted with total control lest they raise taxes once more and try to monkey around with the healthcare system.
The memories of 1995-96 bar the GOP from control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue because voters fear that they might emasculate environmental protections and dismantle Medicare. Voters want checks and balances, not blank checks.
But to assume that the dynamics of Bush's popularity will automatically trigger a GOP congressional victory misses the more specific point that Bush's high approval rating comes exclusively from his work on the war on terror.
As long as Democrats are careful not to challenge him on the war, the conflict will be inadmissible in the congressional races of 2002. Voters will not feel that they need to back Republicans to empower Bush to win the war on terror. They will realize that either way, the war will go on, under Democratic or Republican congresses.
Rather, they will focus on the remaining list of domestic issues in determining how to vote for Congress and, here, the Democrats hold all the cards.
There is not a single national issue, now in play before Congress, on which the Republican Party has the advantage in national polls. All the issues break the other way. On campaign finance reform, the energy/environment tradeoff, the right to sue health maintenance organizations (HMOs), Medicare drug coverage, more tax cuts, Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), and Social Security reform, the public backs the Democratic position over the views of the congressional Republicans.
Bush is the president for foreign policy. The only aspects of his domestic policy that were popular - the current level of tax cuts and education reform - have already passed and are off the table. Unless the Democrats either challenge Bush on the war - as Sens. Tom Daschle (S.D.), Joe Biden (Del.) and Robert Byrd (W.Va.) unwisely started to do last week - or overtly move to repeal his tax cuts - as Sen. Teddy Kennedy (Mass.) urged last month - the Republicans will not be able to convert Bush's lead into congressional victories.
Bush will not be able to wade into the electoral waters to slash and burn his Democratic opponents. Voters expect - and discount - the normal level of partisan campaigning. But anything beyond that and he will fall victim to the Woodrow Wilson syndrome.
In 1918, in the months before the World War I armistice, Wilson campaigned vigorously for a Democratic Congress to help him "win the war." Voters reciprocated with a GOP majority in both houses, which torpedoed the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations in retaliation.
Bush is headed for Mt. Rushmore if he wages the war on terror well and
thoroughly, but the GOP cannot count on his popularity to win. They will need
to do it by floating issues on their
03/01/02: Will America be forced to chase its tail in its war on terrorism?