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Jewish World Review April 23, 2001 / 30 Nissan, 5761

Michael Barone

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Consumer Reports

Kennedy and Bush are more alike than you might think



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HE'S part of a large, nationally famous political family, with a famous father whose political career ended in disappointment. He beat an incumbent vice president in a time of peace and prosperity (though there were a few signs of recession) by the narrowest of margins and, some members of the other party still believe, by a crooked count. He set an ambitious legislative agenda even though his party's control of Congress was precarious. His charm has impressed voters and politicians alike, and the way he faced his first foreign-policy imbroglio in April sent his job rating shooting elsewhere. Which president are we talking about? It sounds like George W. Bush. But those same words could have been written 40 years ago about John F. Kennedy.

Of course, there are differences. Kennedy was Catholic and Democratic, Bush is Methodist and Republican. Kennedy's father only hoped to be president, but never ran; Bush's ran and won. Kennedy's Democrats had a lot more seats in Congress than Bush's Republicans, but many were Southerners who routinely voted with the opposition. Kennedy was witty and articulate, and utterly self-confident; Bush often mangles words and appears hesitant. But the way Bush handled his first foreign-policy incident–he would avoid the word crisis–was widely judged a success, while Kennedy's first foreign-policy initiative, the Bay of Pigs, was judged a failure by everybody, including himself.

Similar stands. Both men stand in the same place in the political cycle. Both were elected by narrow margins in a year when their parties lost seats in both houses of Congress. Both backed free trade, tax cuts, and a foreign policy based on expansive American military power (clips of Kennedy supporting tax cuts have been played recently by the conservative Issues Management Center, to the consternation of Sen. Edward Kennedy). Both quickly achieved personal popularity that went beyond party lines, although in both cases there was a hard core of opposition unreconciled to their election. Both were the subject of caustic criticism by moderates of the other party. It is little remembered today, but Rockefeller Republicans were contemptuous of Kennedy and believed that their man could easily defeat him in 1964; it was their house paper, the New York Herald Tribune, that Kennedy banned from the White House. Today contemptuous criticism of Bush comes from the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, which believes that a candidate who followed their blueprint could have won easily in 2000.

Bush's poll numbers are not yet as high as Kennedy's were, and may never be, and there is certainly not the fascinated interest in the Bushes in 2001 that there was for the Kennedys in 1961. But Bush's favorables have been high, and congressional Republicans' poll numbers have been running higher than at any time since the run-up to their big victory in 1994. That's important, because Kennedy and Bush are the only two presidents in the past half century in a position to benefit from redistricting in their first off-year elections. Kennedy's Democrats were helped mainly because of California, which gained eight House seats and whose district lines were drawn by Pat Brown's Democratic Legislature. As a result, in 1962 Democrats gained 11 seats and Republicans lost three in California. Nationwide, Democrats in 1962 lost four House seats and Republicans gained two (the previous House had two extra members, after Alaska and Hawaii were admitted as states). That was the best off-year result for a party in power between 1934 and 1998. In contrast, redistricting worked against Ronald Reagan's Republicans in 1982, when they lost 26 seats–15 of those from redistricting.

This year, Bush's Republicans may be in the same position as Kennedy's Democrats. I estimate that Republicans will make a net gain of five to 10 seats through redistricting. And they may be helped by Democratic fatigue. In 1999 and 2000, Minority Leader Dick Gephardt did a brilliant job of persuading popular Democrats not to retire or run for statewide office by predicting Democrats would win a majority and they would become chairmen in 2001. But they didn't, and they may not be as receptive to such appeals a second time–especially when redistricting puts that tantalizingly close majority just a little further out of reach. Meanwhile, in 2002 Senate races, Republicans have gotten a couple of breaks in recent weeks. So it's possible, though by no means certain, that the president's party can gain seats in the off-year election, as it just about did 40 years ago.

As for 2004, that is a long distance away, and no one can predict the factor that British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said determines political fates–"Events, dear boy, events." But it is worth noting that it is a myth that Kennedy was in political trouble when he was assassinated in November 1963. His standing had fallen in the South when he endorsed the civil rights bill in June of that year, but polls showed him running far ahead in the rest of the country at a time of peace and prosperity. He would have won big, as his successor Lyndon Johnson did, and so might Bush.

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JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of the biennialAlmanac of American Politics. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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©2001, Michael Barone