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Jewish World Review Sept. 30, 2002 / 24 Tishrei, 5763

Michael Barone

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The Dems' dilemma |
The conventional wisdom around Washington is that the Democrats were making big gains on the economy and corporate misdeeds in July and August and that the Republicans have been making big gains on the issue of Iraq after George W. Bush's United Nations speech September 12. I think the conventional wisdom is, as it is so often, wrong.

There is little evidence that Democrats made big gains over the summer. National polling numbers oscillated within a narrow range rather than surged, the seven tightest Senate races remain tight, and no incumbent House Republican (or Democrat) has been trailing in a publicly disclosed poll. In a Pew Charitable Trusts poll taken September 5-10, when respondents were asked which party would better deal with the economy, they were split 36 to 36 percent; when asked which party would better deal with corporate misconduct, they preferred Republicans by a 36 to 31 percent margin. Some Democratic advantage.

Democrats and the conventional wisdom seem to assume voters will respond to a stagnant economy and corporate misdeeds as they did in the past: Turn to the Democrats to pump up the economy and bash corporations. But opinion on economics today depends less on income than on wealth, less on short-term earnings and more on how voters are doing in their lifelong project of accumulating wealth. Voters can get through short-term setbacks with credit cards; they want a stable, dependable environment in which their wealth can grow. Only about 8 percent of voters remember the Great Depression, when one year's economic reversal resulted in a downward spiral and personal disaster.

Democrats' preferred but mostly unavowed economic cure-repeal the scheduled Bush tax cuts-has little appeal. Most voters expect the economy will grow and the stock market will rise. So economic issues have not helped Democrats much and probably won't.

Split decision. But that doesn't mean that the concentration on Iraq will help Republicans much in November. Congress will most likely vote on a resolution authorizing military action in Iraq; some Democrats will probably oppose it on the ground that the United States should use military force only if the United Nations approves. Most Democrats will probably vote for the Iraq resolution, including potential presidential candidates Joseph Lieberman, Dick Gephardt, and John Edwards. Some prominent Democrats have suggested they will vote against, including John Kerry, Carl Levin, Paul Wellstone, and Nancy Pelosi. Al Gore weighed in against last week; like Bill Clinton, he favors concentrating on Afghanistan and al Qaeda and would not move now against Iraq. Voters will mostly back the resolution. But few Democrats in close races are likely to put themselves in the perilous position of voting against the president; Wellstone probably, perhaps a few others. Democrats in other close races will probably vote for the majority resolution, and if anything strengthen themselves.

But Democrats may be hurt after November by their party split. Many party activists and money givers will be against (note the applause for the antiwar portions of Gore's speech in trendy-left San Francisco) and will be heartsick when they see most Democrats vote for. That may dampen Democratic turnout in November. But the greater damage may come in 2004. Assuming that a war in Iraq and the aftermath go well, Democrats against the resolution will be unlikely to run for president, as otherwise strong Democrats who voted against the Gulf War resolution in 1991 declined to run in 1992. That left the Democrats with a weak field against Clinton, who would probably not have survived the Gennifer Flowers scandal in a stronger field.

This time the Democrats may have a field made up mostly of supporters of an Iraq war resolution and just a couple of candidates against it-Gore, the little-known Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Al Sharpton. That would likely result in a gulf between the party's nominee and very many of its activists and fundraisers on a major issue. That is a recipe for a gravely weakened general election candidacy, as in 1968 or 1972. It could result in a nominee dedicated to the proposition that we should not act to protect ourselves unless we get approval from the U.N., which is to say, of France, Russia, and China. None of this is certain to happen. But the lively possibility it will is one reason why so many Democrats have been chary of addressing the Iraq issue on the merits and have been hopping mad that the subject was brought up before the election.

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JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2002, Michael Barone