U.S. Politics

A BIG BOOST FOR THE PRESIDENT

Bush’s Republicans take the House of Representatives and the Senate

DAVID M. SHRIBMAN November 18 2002
U.S. Politics

A BIG BOOST FOR THE PRESIDENT

Bush’s Republicans take the House of Representatives and the Senate

DAVID M. SHRIBMAN November 18 2002

A BIG BOOST FOR THE PRESIDENT

Bush’s Republicans take the House of Representatives and the Senate

U.S. Politics

DAVID M. SHRIBMAN

SELDOM HAS A DIVIDED nation seemed so united. Last week’s mid-term elections in the United States were remarkable for many reasons, not least of which was the way in which a country that is split down the middle politically nonetheless assembled a government with a single identity, in this case unabashedly, unambiguously Republican.

Thanks to a late-campaign offensive from President George W. Bush, pervasive public worries about national security issues, and voters’ willingness to overlook stubborn unemployment and economic anxiety, the Republicans are back in complete control in Washington. Against most expectations and much history (Americans customarily use off-year elections to punish the party in power), the Republicans retained the House of Representatives and recaptured the Senate. The result: a big boost for Bush, and a stunning setback for the men who seek to unseat him in two years. Indeed, two of the principal potential Democratic candidates for president, Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Representative Richard Gephardt of Missouri, spent the end of last week ruminating about their destiny in the congressional minority, with Gephardt deciding he would resign as House minority leader and focus on a 2004 presidential bid.

The loss of the Senate, the Democrats’ last remaining redoubt in Washington, is important both symbolically and practically. It stands as an emblem of Bush’s dominance over American politics only two years after he was forced to scratch for the final remaining votes in a bitterly contested election. It also means Democrats no longer hold committee chairmanships, no longer have the ability to command attention and express power through high-profile congressional hearings or indulge their suspicions about the Republicans’ ties to big business by issuing subpoenas that embarrass the White House. The Republicans’ margin of power is still slim, but Bush and his allies are in a stronger position to cut taxes for the rich, prevail in bloody budget fights and, per-

haps most important, appoint conservative judges to the Supreme Court.

But it may be in international councils where the impact of the Republican ascendancy is greatest. Continued Democratic control of the Senate would have been interpreted by America’s friends and foes as a repudiation of the President and his willingness to go it alone in international affairs. But now, Bush is arguing—in contradiction to some opinion polls—that the elections underscore Americans’ support for military action against Saddam Hussein.

The elections provided sobering messages for some of the most prominent Democrats. Former vice-president Walter F. Móndale, drafted to run for the Senate when Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone perished in an air crash in late October, was defeated. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the eldest daughter of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, suffered a stunning upset after being all but crowned as the next governor of Maryland, yet another blow to the Kennedy mystique. But the most telling

result came in Florida. There, the President’s brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, withstood a strong challenge from the Democrats, including the mobilization of blacks angry over voting irregularities in the 2000 election. As he stood at the podium of a Miami hotel, he embraced his father, the first President Bush, and thanked the President for “lending a hand to his little brother.”

The Democrats did score one important victory when Canadian-born Jennifer Granholm was elected governor of Michigan. Granholm, a Harvard-trained lawyer, moved from Richmond, B.C., to California with her family when she was three. She campaigned strongly in traditional black areas and trounced her Bible-thumping Republican challenger. But Granholm’s election was a rare bright spot, and within hours of the vote the Democratic Leadership Council began the party’s post-mortems with a simple argument: “Democrats need a new message that is positive, centrist, but unmistakably distinct from the Republican party or the President.” The Democrats didn’t have that last week, which may be why they don’t have the Senate, or much else, now. lil