Midterm Elections Coming Down to the Wire

Andrew E. Busch

September 1, 2002

Roughly one month before the midterm elections, Democratic hopes for big gains won on the coattails of corporate scandal are fading. It appears unlikely at this moment that either party will make net gains exceeding a handful of seats in either house.

There are several reasons for this development. First, for reasons outlined here a few months ago, the corporate corruption issue has not carried the weight Democrats had hoped. It is, in essence, a wash. An example of this phenomenon can be seen in the U.S. Senate race in Colorado, where Democrat Tom Strickland and the Democratic Party have bombarded the airwaves with charges that the incumbent Republican, Wayne Allard, was too deferential to Qwest Communications and that he voted to weaken securities laws. Allard and Republicans have pointed out that he voted, in committee and on the floor, for the corrective legislation that passed last summer. They have also pointed out Strickland’s own ties, as a lobbyist and a stockholder, with Global Crossing. While one poll has put the two in a dead heat, most polls have shown Allard holding on to a sizeable lead.

Second, news of the shaky economy, including continued declines in the stock market, have not yet rebounded to the clear advantage of Democrats, who have failed to offer any coherent alternative economic policy. The closest they have come is consistent criticism of the Bush tax cut, though few Democrats have actually advocated cancelling it. There is a good reason for this confusion: It is now clear that the economy was on the edge of recession when Bill Clinton left office, and that had he remained in office—or if Al Gore had managed to wrangle a few hundred more votes out of Florida—the economy would be just the same as it is today (or perhaps even a bit slower, since there would have been no serious tax relief in 2001-2002). As a result, polls show Americans about evenly divided on the question of which party is better equipped to handle the economy.

Finally, Democrats have been forced onto the terrain of national security, an area where Republicans hold a 2-1 advantage among voters, and in the process have demonstrated exactly why Republicans hold that advantage. It is little exaggeration to say that Democrats imploded on the issue of Iraq in the last week of September.

Al Gore began the week with a highly partisan jeremiad against the Bush administration, accusing it of seeking to deflect attention from “failure” in Afghanistan, trampling the Constitution, and flitting from “one unfinished task to another.” It did not escape the notice of thoughtful Americans that Bush has thus far been much more successful in Afghanistan that the Clinton-Gore administration ever was, that Gore’s criticism of Bush’s wartime civil liberties record was foolishly out of proportion (what would he say about Abraham Lincoln, who suspended habeas corpus and declared martial law in border states, or Franklin Roosevelt, who relocated thousands of Japanese Americans?), and that great nations are often called upon to attend to more than one significant task at the same time. The United States could take on imperial Japan and the Nazi war machine simultaneously, but apparently Gore believes al Qaeda and Iraq are too much to handle. If he is right, one can only wonder at how far our military preparedness was allowed to slip during a critical period in the 1990s. In any event, it is Iraq that is the original unfinished business, dating back to 1991.

A few days later, Tom Daschle provided an encore by demanding an apology from Bush for “politicizing” the debate over war. Of course, the presidential comments that triggered Daschle’s outburst were directed not at war with Iraq but at the refusal of Senate Democrats to move the homeland security bill forward in deference to their union allies. One can only conclude that Daschle, who had to know he was fighting a straw man, was hoping to strengthen his position on the left wing of the Democratic Party in his quest for the presidency, mobilize Democratic voters for the upcoming elections, or both—transparently political aims in their own right.

A few days after that, Ted Kennedy added his voice, complaining that war with Iraq should be a “last resort” instead of a “first resort,” and arguing that his brother John’s avoidance of preemptive action during the Cuban missile crisis should be emulated. Rip Van Kennedy has apparently slept through the total failure of diplomatic efforts over the previous eleven years, including the long list of flouted U.N. resolutions cited by Bush in his September 12 address. If war with Iraq comes, it will hardly be as a first resort. Kennedy also seemed to forget that his brother was prepared to launch preemptive military action against Cuba in 1962, and probably would have had the crisis lingered but a few more days. Indeed, JFK did authorize a preemptive war against Cuba with the aim of a regime change, in hopes of forestalling a hostile buildup of weapons of mass destruction on the island. It was called the Bay of Pigs, and if Kennedy had possessed the fortitude to see it through to a successful conclusion, there would not have been a Cuban missile crisis.

To conclude the week of Democratic melt-down, Democratic congressmen Jim McDermott and David Bonoir visited Baghdad and concluded that Saddam Hussein was more trustworthy than George W. Bush. Their comments exemplified the fundamental tendency of the American left, and the fundamental reason most Americans are reluctant to trust it with responsibility for national security. That tendency consists of an inexplicable combination of insufferable cynicism toward their own country and incurable gullibility toward her enemies. Democrats scrambled to reassure Americans that McDermott and Bonoir did not represent the true face of the Democratic Party, but after the broadsides of the previous week voters could be forgiven for receiving those assurances with some skepticism.

Though Democrats are being hurt electorally by the focus on Iraq, it is obtuse to argue that Bush and the Republicans contrived the timing of the debate to accomplish that purpose. For one thing, it was Democrats who originally insisted on a congressional war resolution, and who preferred that it be debated now in order to get war and peace “out of the way” so they could focus on truly important issues like accounting reform and prescription drug coverage for seniors. To the degree that Bush is calculating, his actual calculations are being reversed by critics. The resolution is not being pushed in order to affect the elections; the elections are being used as a lever to prod Congress into action on the resolution.

With five weeks to go, things could still happen to change the dynamic of the campaign, especially with the foreign policy situation in a state of flux. Democrats might find their voice on the economy, Bush might stumble, anti-war voters might be energized to vote against the President’s party. And because Republican control of the House is so narrowly held, even loss of a few GOP seats could mean a Democratic majority. But unless something unexpected radically changes the electoral environment between now and election day, the big win envisioned by Democrats in July is not going to materialize.

Andrew E. Busch is an Adjunct Fellow of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs and an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver, where he specializes in American government and politics. Dr. Busch is the author of Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom. He is also the co-author of The Perfect Tie: The True Story of the 2000 Presidential Election.