The State of American Politics 2002

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In Y2K, George W. Bush became the first man in more than a century to win the White House with fewer votes than his rival. Since his victory, 1.7 million workers have lost their jobs and a bear market has ravaged the savings accounts and pensions of millions of families.

Thus, Tuesday night should have been a blowout for the Democrats.

Historically, too, a president’s first off-year election produces big losses. Reagan lost 26 House seats in 1982. Clinton lost 52 in 1994. Yet, 24 hours before the polls opened, Republicans were even money to hold the House and retain their 49 seats in the Senate.

Whatever happened on Election Day, President Bush cannot be faulted. He recruited candidates, put his prestige and popularity on the line, campaigned harder than any chief executive, raised more money than even the greatest buck-raker of them all – Bill Clinton – and set the agenda.

Since he returned from his Crawford vacation, he shifted the focus of the national campaign from the tough economic times to war with Iraq, and forced both Houses to cede to him the authority to launch a pre-emptive strike at a time of his choosing. Agree or disagree, that is leadership.

The secret of the president’s success to date lies in his willingness to shove all his chips into the middle of the table, while the poll-driven party of Gephardt and Daschle has failed to exhibit any audacity at all.

The president fought for and got 80 percent of the tax cut on which he campaigned, a tax cut Democrats yet believe was a giveaway to the rich. But when the economy tanked, did Democrats propose legislation to take back the tax cut to the wealthy and transfer it to the middle class? No. Why not? The president will veto it, they said.

The real reason: Bush would have charged them with trying to raise taxes, and Democrats did not believe they could answer the charge or survive the allegation.

Most Democrats believe Saddam Hussein is no mortal threat, that containment has worked, and that the consequences of an invasion and occupation of Baghdad could be disastrous for U.S. interests. Yet not one presidential prospect in Congress – Gephardt, Daschle, Lieberman, Kerry – voted against giving the president the power to go to war. Even Hillary Clinton voted for this Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Yet all hail the courage of Paul Wellstone, the only vulnerable Democrat to have voted “no.”

But if Democrats have taken a sabbatical from liberal principle, the GOP is no profile in conservative courage. In the 1990s, they promised voters they would shut down the U.S. Department of Education, balance the budget, end affirmative action and protect the unborn. Yet, today, the Department of Education has been massively enlarged, federal spending has exploded, affirmative action remains federal law and 3 million abortions have been performed since the Florida recount. On the social issues, the Republican Party has become an army of rabbits.

All of which explains why some conservatives looked on this election the way Easterners looked on a World Series between Anaheim and San Francisco: The games may be exciting, but who cares who wins?

Every two years, commentators bewail the declining numbers who bother to vote. But why should Americans take these elections seriously? Do they really make that great a difference in our lives?

Of 435 House races, perhaps 5 percent remain truly competitive, as both parties have colluded inside state legislatures to keep the maximum number of safe districts. Even in those contested races, both candidates, on the advice of pollsters and consultants, avoid controversial ideas and mouth pieties, and let the campaign ads do the dirty work.

The huge infusions of campaign cash that have crowded out third parties are used mostly for attack ads targeted at voters with the attention span of a 10-year-old. Republicans accuse Democrats of being soft on national security. Democrats accuse Republicans of seeking to destroy Social Security.

A billion dollars of attack ads on radio and television every two years, tearing apart the opponent – “driving his negatives up” – will that not one day kill belief in the system itself? Already, the power of negative ads has helped turn off tens of millions of voters and induced a visible cowardice in legislators desperate to keep their jobs.

Six weeks ago, when President Bush demanded that Congress vote on giving him the authority to launch an attack on Iraq that could ignite a war of civilizations, Democrats were outraged he was forcing them to take a stand – on the eve of an election! As though this were the worst of dirty tricks.

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