`Pivotal' Election May Weaken Bush, Push Democrats on Policies
By Roger Simon
Nov. 6 (Bloomberg) -- Midterm elections have often been tame events in the U.S. Some have come and gone without the public taking much notice. Not this year.
Tomorrow's congressional elections have been the subject of intense campaigning and relentless media coverage. They have been fought on national rather than local themes, with Democrats focusing on the unpopular war in Iraq and Republicans stressing the need to maintain lower taxes and bolster national security.
``The election is broader than just a referendum on George Bush,'' says Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, whose party is seeking to regain full control of Congress for the first time in 12 years. ``It is a referendum on the Republican Party, its honesty and its competence.''
Republican Party leader Ken Mehlman says the election ``is a pivotal moment in the nation's history. I am confident we are going to keep our majority, but we ought to engage in a very serious discussion about how to do better after this election is over.''
The stakes are high for Bush as he heads into the final two years of his presidency. His job-approval ratings are below 40 percent, emboldening members of his own party to oppose him on issues from immigration to a Dubai company's efforts to take over the management of U.S. ports. A loss of one or both houses of Congress would weaken him further.
Pressure on Bush
Should Democrats take control of the House or Senate, they would be able to hold investigations of the administration and issue subpoenas. And Bush would come under increasing pressure to make progress in Iraq or withdraw U.S. troops.
The Democrats face their own pressures. So many pollsters and pundits are predicting they will win the House that failing to do so might seriously rock the party's confidence and future.
``If we can't win this one, we ought to start a new party,'' says Jim Blanchard, a Democrat who served in the House and as governor of Michigan, and is now a lobbyist.
Also, while Democrats have benefited from their opposition to Iraq, should they gain power they may be expected to come up with a solution to the war. Some Democrats urge their party to resist that pressure.
``I think Democrats will have to look constructive in wanting to work with the president and pushing him to change on the war,'' says former Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, who was Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign chairman and is now a banker. ``But I don't think they should come up with their own plan. He's the president.''
For more than two years, Gallup polls have shown that a majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country; a poll taken Oct. 9-12 put the number at 68 percent. Republican strategists say while they knew voters would want change in this election, the White House stuck to a policy of fighting on in Iraq and maintaining the status quo on everything from keeping Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to opposing federal support for stem cell research.
``This election is a referendum on Bush that was catalyzed not simply by Iraq and not simply by Katrina but also the Mark Foley debacle, which brought all the incompetence and values issues to the forefront,'' says Ken Duberstein, who was chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan. ``The party is already looking to 2008 and a presidential candidate other than Bush.''
A strategist who worked in a previous Republican White House says, ``The only difference this election makes is whether Bush is a lame duck or a dead duck.''
Bob Shrum, who was a top political adviser to Democrat John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign, says: ``The people wanted to change in '04, but it was still a 9/11 election. So now you have all this pent-up energy, this frustration coming out. The dominating issue is the Iraq war, and the people don't want to leave Bush out there on his own to make the decisions.''
Says independent political analyst Charles Cook: ``Seventy percent of this election is about Iraq, and the rest is a mish- mash of the deficit, stem-cell research, immigration and Terri Schiavo,'' referring to the brain-damaged Florida woman whose husband's efforts to remove her from life support led congressional Republicans to get involved.
Cook predicts the Democrats will take anywhere from 20 to 35 seats in the House; they need a net gain of 15 to win control of the chamber. The Senate is harder to predict, Cook says, with the Democrats likely to take ``five or six seats.'' They need a net gain of six to take control. There are 435 House races, and 33 in the Senate.
`Gloomy Election Night'
Many Republicans are preparing for bad news. ``It's going to be a gloomy election night,'' says Richard Armey, who was House majority leader from 1995 to 2003. ``If they escape the jaws of death, it will only be by a one- or two-vote margin. A Republican would be hard-pressed to get a prom date right now.''
One top Republican strategist says that ``our trouble is with soft Republicans, the disaffected, squishy Republicans who were Bush voters. I am hopeful that by election day they'll just say, `I just can't do it, I just can't vote Democratic.' If they don't do that, the numbers will be even worse for us.''
The question remains what the Democrats would do in power. While Dean at the beginning of the year talked of investigating members of the Bush administration, he doesn't emphasize that now.
``Our priority is a new direction for the country,'' he says. ``I daresay there will be investigations, but that is not our focus.''
`A Huge Fatigue'
Richard Gephardt, who has been both a House Democratic majority and minority leader and is now a private attorney, says the public doesn't want more partisanship. ``There is a huge fatigue in this country with excessive partisanship and getting nothing done,'' he says. ``Democrats need to do something, rather than just investigate and subpoena.''
Dean says that if the Democrats win, legislative accomplishments will be on their minds. ``We will pass an increase in the minimum wage and we will see if the president signs it or not,'' he says. ``And I hope we will pass significant health-care coverage for people under 25.''
Republican leader Mehlman says he's concerned about the prospects for overhauling health care and Social Security if the Democrats take control of the House or Senate. ``I worry that Democrats will focus on governmental bureaucratic power rather than on a model that focuses on individual choice and personal ownership,'' he says.
Armey says presidents could make significant accomplishments if they were willing to work with the opposition party. He cites the North American Free Trade Agreement as an example of legislation pushed by Democratic President Bill Clinton that passed because of overwhelming Republican support.
``Immigration reform might be a good issue for the House to get some training in bipartisanship,'' Armey says.
For much of this year, Democrats worried about an October surprise by the Republicans such as the capture of Osama bin Laden or a draw-down of troops from Iraq. What October brought instead were the deaths of 105 U.S. troops in Iraq, the worst month since January 2005.
Meanwhile, Florida Representative Foley's resignation after revelation of sexually explicit messages he sent to a teenage page prompted the Republican House leadership to engage in finger-pointing over who knew what, and when, about the matter.
Matthew Dowd, who was Bush's chief campaign strategist in 2004 and is now working for California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, says the public has become dismayed with politics in America, and things are unlikely to improve no matter who wins tomorrow.
``On Nov. 8, when this election is over, the American people will be even more frustrated,'' he says. ``The two political parties are at an all-time low in terms of their image, and Republicans are going to get punished more because they are in power. If somebody could adopt a different style that did not result in partisanship and paralysis, that would be wonderful. But I don't have a huge expectation that is going to happen.''