Stuck between Bush and a hard place
Democratic losses in the midterm congressional elections were somewhat surprising, yet not entirely unpredictable. The Democrats could not simultaneously distinguish themselves from their Republican challengers and avoid a shift too far to the left of a popular president.
Bush campaigned more than any sitting president ever has for a midterm election. It was a gutsy move. By making himself so visible, he set himself up for a potentially damaging political defeat. He made a wise choice though, one that netted Republicans control of both the House and the Senate in Tuesday's election.
Dubbed "historic" by the White House, this election was indeed a political anomaly. Not since the time of Franklin Roosevelt has a first-term president's party picked up House seats in a midterm election.
Bush simply made the election about himself. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Bush's approval rating has been astronomically high. Currently in the upper 60 percent range, his public support is unprecedented for a president two years into his term. He stumped for Republican candidates in 40 states, encouraging voters to "Win one for George Dubya!"
His campaigning worked. Bucking the trend, the Republicans not only kept the House, but even gained seats. The Democrats lost two seats in the Senate (pending a possible recount in South Dakota and a runoff election in Louisiana) and will relinquish control of the body, giving Bush a majority in both houses of Congress.
While most pundits expected the Democrats to hold onto the Senate, this analysis was probably based more on historical trends than the current political environment. In the midst of national unity behind a popular president waging a war against terrorism, the Democrats could hardly have expected to come out better than they did.
The voters resonated with the Republicans on national defense, largely because Bush has been the center of the popular War on Terrorism. In Georgia, successful Republican challenger Saxby Chambliss defeated incumbent Democratic Senator Max Cleland by portraying his opponent as uninterested in homeland security. Cleland, by the way, lost three limbs serving his country in the Vietnam War.
The Democrats could not convince the voters that the economic downturn was the fault of the Bush administration. The economy was the number one concern of Americans going into the election and the Democrats failed to capitalize on their distress.
But what where they to do?
Come out with an economic package that would have included a repeal of Bush's tax cut? While probably the right thing to do, this would have been just as politically unwise as hoping the economy would backfire on Bush. Without any strong issues of their own, the Democrats allowed this election come down to Bush and his agenda.
Many of the Democrats in the closest races voted with Bush on the tax cut and Iraq, further complicating their reelection situation. Again, these Democrats were trying to navigate between two bad situations: either coming off as too liberal or appearing indistinguishable from their Republican challengers.
Under the circumstances, the Democrats did not do all that badly. After all, they were stuck with a set of impossible choices.
Looking to the future, the Democrats did pick up several governorships, which will surely help in the 2004 presidential election.
Bush's support, stemming largely from international issues, will now translate into domestic power. This will be a painful two years for Democrats as they watch Bush make his irresponsible tax cut permanent, wage a war in Iraq, and fill the Federal judiciary with conservative judges who could possibly overturn Roe v. Wade.