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Jewish World Review Sept. 19, 2002 / 13 Tishrei, 5763

Bill Schneider

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Pundits in the crosswinds | Political forecasting works like weather forecasting. Only riskier. Forecasters are trying to say which way the political winds will be blowing two months from now.

Let's see how they've blown in past midterms.

The issue that dominated the 1982 midterm election was President Ronald Reagan's suggestion that he would consider postponing cost-of-living increases for social security recipients. A big wind blew Democrats into Congress that year on a pledge to ``save social security.''

1986 was a status quo year. The winds were calm. That's why it came as a big surprise when Democrats regained control of the Senate. It happened because of history, not politics. A gale-force wind had blown a lot of Republicans into the Senate six years earlier, in 1980. When the winds calmed down in 1986, many of those new Republican senators were left at sea.

At the time of the 1990 midterm, the U.S. was engaged in a showdown with Saddam Hussein over Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. But the build-up to war had not started, and foreign policy did not dominate the campaign. 1990 was a recession year. President Bush had broken his no-new-taxes pledge. The winds blew in an anti-incumbent direction that year. It was a rare election in which incumbents of both political parties, on the average, saw their margins of victory diminish. Not many incumbents lost, so the message of dissatisfaction was not immediately apparent. But it turned out to be a warning of things to come in 1992, the year of angry voters, Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot.

1994 was a hurricane year. A huge storm blew the Democratic majorities in Congress away. The issue? Bill Clinton, with his tax hike and ``Hillary care'' and gays in the military and gun control. Turnout surged as southern whites, religious conservatives and gun owners flooded the polls to make a statement against President Clinton. Southern Democrats who had survived for decades on their personal reputations suddenly found themselves labeled ``Clinton supporters'' and got swept away.

1998 was the year of impeachment. A lot of people voted to save a President who had made them rich. The shock came when the President's party broke tradition and gained seats in the House of Representatives -- the first time that had happened in a midterm election since 1934. The unexpected Democratic wind rattled the Republican majority and blew House Speaker Newt Gingrich away.

What's the forecast for this year's midterm? The answer appears to be, crosswinds.

If national security issues dominate the election, the wind is expected to blow in a Republican direction. But even that's not clear. War anxiety has been growing, and so far, it seems to be helping Democrats. Voters alarmed by the Bush Administration's ``rush to war'' with Iraq could try to stop it by voting Democratic for Congress.

But President Bush says he intends to get support from Congress. When asked whether that meant Congress would have veto power over his decision, President Bush demurred. He intends to ask Congress for support, not for permission. Congress is likely to give its support, possibly before November, which could make the Iraq issue moot in the election.

The Bush Administration has just begun to make its case for war. ``Today the process starts,'' President Bush said on September 4. Which may be why the Iraq debate has not yet penetrated the campaign. The September 2-4 Gallup poll asked, ``Which issue will be more important to you when you vote for Congress this November -- the economy, or the possibility of war with Iraq?'' Americans continued to say the economy would be more important, by 57 to 34 percent -- about the same margin as in mid-August.

If economic issues dominate the midterm, the prevailing winds are expected to be Democratic. But forecasters have not yet detected any sign of a big Democratic wind. Congressional Republicans have protected themselves by passing a corporate responsibility bill and a prescription drug bill in the House. ``We're happy to fight it out in their box,'' the executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee told The New York Times ``The bottom line is that the Republicans delivered, and we delivered on issue after issue.''

But what's true for Iraq is also true for economic issues: the debate is just starting.

``If you believe that their greater amount of money will allow them to say anything they want and get away with it -- well I don't think they can pull it off,'' House minority leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) replied.

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08/13/01: Japan becomes the latest country to see its politics become personalized
08/09/01: Bush backers out to remake prez yet again
07/30/01: Will the GOP's mandate of 1994 finally runs out?
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06/15/01: The new soccer moms
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© 2002, William Schneider