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Jewish World Review Nov. 8, 2002 / 3 Kislev, 5763

Bill Schneider

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"President select" no longer: What have the Dems learned?

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | President Bush has finally won his mandate -- the mandate he did not get in 2000.

After all, Presidents are supposed to have coattails when they get elected. They are not supposed to have coattails in a midterm election. Midterms are when Presidents are supposed to see their parties suffer setbacks in Congress. That's been the rule in virtually every midterm election since the civil war.

In the 1990 midterm, the first President George Bush saw the Republicans lose one Senate seats and eight seats in the House of Representatives. The 1994 midterm was a legendary setback for President Bill Clinton. Democrats lost 8 Senate seats, 52 House seats and control of Congress for the first time in forty years. That was more than a setback. It was a repudiation, albeit a temporary one.

1998 broke another that longstanding precedent. Under threat of impeachment by the GOP Congress, Democrats suffered no net losses in the Senate and actually gained five House seats. The shock was enough to force House Speaker Newt Gingrich to resign.

What are we to make of the fact that the tradition of presidential party setbacks has been broken for a second midterm in a row -- more impressively, in fact, than four years ago? Under George W. Bush, the Republicans have taken back control of the Senate from the Democrats.

And expanded their majority in the House.

Here's one reason why the rule of midterm setbacks no longer applies with regularity: Presidents rarely get elected with coattails any more. Ronald Reagan was the last President who did. Neither George Bush nor Bill Clinton nor George W. Bush saw their parties gain congressional seats the year they first got elected. If a new President doesn't bring gains for his party when he gets elected, his party is less likely to face losses two years later.

The huge Democratic losses of 1994 had nothing to do with Bill Clinton's coattails. They had to do with Bill Clinton's unpopularity.

The reason for the Republicans' impressive gains on Tuesday were essentially political. The election was turned into a referendum on a popular President. Democrats may try to console themselves by claiming that ``all politics is local,'' but that is quite wrong. Republicans enjoyed a massive sweep across the country.

In the Northeast, Republican governors got re-elected in New York and Connecticut. Republicans won open races for governor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maryland. In the South, Democratic governors got swept away in South Carolina and Georgia, while the GOP held on to four open Senate seats.

If the election proved anything, it was that governors are uniquely vulnerable to bad economies. As of Wednesday morning, twelve governorships had switched parties (seven from Republican to Democratic, and five from Democratic to Republican). Most governors are constrained by balanced budget laws They can not live with deficits, the way the President and Congress can. Governors have to make tough choices either to raise taxes or cut spending. That's why so many of them got the axe.

The governors of the four largest states survived, but they did so for very specific reasons. In the case of Republican George Pataki of New York, it had much to do his enhanced stature after September 11, 2001. In the case of Republicans Jeb Bush of Florida and Rick Perry of Texas, it had much to do with the enhanced stature of George W. Bush after Septembe 11, 2001.

In the case of Democrat Gray Davis of California, it had much to do with the diminished stature of his opponent, Bill Simon, Jr. Simon's campaign was so inept that it appeared to depress GOP turnout across the state. California was the great exception last Tuesday: it was the one state where Democrats turned in a strong performance.

In the rest of the country, the election turned out to be a referendum on Bush because the Republicans set out to make it one. At a time of mounting economic anxiety, Republicans had little going for them except the President's popularity. President Bush's relentless campaign schedule had the effect of rallying his party. In a Gallup poll taken the weekend before the election, 64 percent of likely Republican voters said they felt ``more enthusiastic'' about voting this year than in past elections. The comparable figure for Democrats was 51 percent.

Democrats failed to rally, for the obvious reason that they had nothing much to rally around: no message and no messenger. Democratic congressional leaders let President Bush have his way on Iraq, and they could find no unifying position on the defining issue of Bush's economic program, the tax cut.

Recriminations are now in order. Democrats are scourging themselves for their party's timidity. If only the had been tougher in opposing Bush on the tax cut and Iraq, they say, they might have rallied the party and averted disaster. But such a leftward lurch might have also revived two of the party's most negative stereotypes: tax-lovers and defense-haters. It might have been an even worse disaster.

President Bush took a calculated risk by making himself the central issue in the campaign. It could have ended badly for the GOP, in which case the election would have damaged the President's political standing. With a 63 percent job approval rating, however, the risk looked like one worth taking. President Bush put his clout on the line. And saw it immensely enhanced by the election results.

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10/31/02: Can a party without a message or a messenger still win?
10/24/02: Fright Night may come twice this year!
09/24/02: The politically loaded question: "Why now?''
09/19/02: Pundits in the crosswinds
09/10/02: Has Bush lost his momentum?
09/04/02: Bush's European problem
08/13/02: Overdosing on prescription drug promises
08/06/02: The Dems' secret weapon
08/01/02: Time for prez to let Cheney go
07/30/02: GOPers, feeling scared, get realistic
07/18/02: Soccer Moms, say hello to NASCAR Dads
07/11/02: Israel via Alabama
06/20/02: Does the solution fit the problem?
06/13/02: Triggering unintended consequences
06/11/02: Democracy won, the president is saying to our enemies. You got a problem with that?
06/06/02: White House warnings were effective tactical move
05/23/02: Giving the Dems an education on education
05/16/02: Power to the swing voters
04/23/02: The secret formula
04/09/02: Politics Remain Stalemated
03/31/02: Values and gas mileage?
03/25/02: Truly oppressed minorities
03/14/02: Reciprocal hostility
03/07/02: Bush's prudence
02/28/02: Is the 'clash of civilizations' becoming a political reality?
02/28/02: 'Cowboy' or not, Bush has the 'axis of evil' running scared
02/20/02: Could it be that the era of Big Government really is over?
01/31/02: 'Daddy issues' grab center stage
01/15/02: And, they're off
01/09/02: Three 'War Stars' are born
01/04/02: California cluelessness?
12/17/01: Congress' life or death issue
11/27/01: Our reinvigorated spendthrift Congress
11/27/01: Out of War, Peace?
11/14/01: The other war --- the one for public opinion
11/09/01: The mayor of New Yawk and the King of the World
11/07/01: An insurance policy on America
11/02/01: A nation of defiant optimists
10/30/01: Has Bush has flip-flopped on 'nation-building'?
10/23/01: The new political world
10/16/01: The return of big government
10/08/01: On political war
10/01/01: The "born-again" president
09/25/01: Making America squirm
09/14/01: The American spirit will not wane
09/10/01: What Dubya knows about the budget
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?
07/23/01: Both political parties are full of ....
07/16/01: Empowered moderate Republicans
07/09/01: As goes New Jersey, so goes the nation?
07/02/01: Dubya: Like father, like son?
06/15/01: The new soccer moms
06/05/01: Deals or deadlock?
05/29/01: The War Between the States is heating up again
05/21/01: The answer is men
05/10/01: Bush v. Carter?

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© 2002, William Schneider