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Jewish World Review May 9, 2002 / 27 Iyar, 5762

Matt Towery

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Replay of 1992 coming? | A little-noticed trend appears to be developing among the public that may spell disaster for elected officials from both major political parties this fall. There is a feeling in the air that seems eerily like that of the 1992 election season.

For those who don't recall, the 1992 election, which brought us Bill Clinton as president, was not as much a partisan sweep for one political party or another as it was a rejection of incumbents -- both in primary battles and in the general elections. It was a strange year in which Newt Gingrich, the same man who would two years later lead his party to control of the House of Representatives and become the first Republican speaker in decades, narrowly escaped defeat by a little-known opponent in his district's GOP primary.

Remember the circumstances. A president named George Bush had, just a year earlier, enjoyed the highest approval ratings in the history of political polling. He had conquered the villain of Iraq, and patriotism was at an all-time high. But as the months after Operation Desert Storm passed by, a general sense of dissatisfaction arose among the general public. The economy was sluggish, and the forceful domestic agenda of the Reagan years was becoming a muddled collection of unclear and sometimes contradictory attempts at dealing with the nation's problems.

Oddly enough, the political operatives and pundits couldn't really put their finger on the true mood of the voters. But as springtime moved toward summer primaries, the electorate's intentions became clearer. They basically wanted anyone who had held office for a significant period of time to exit stage left.

This was also the age of the term limit craze. National organizations were lobbying both Congress and state legislatures for amendments to both the federal and state constitutions to limit the number of years a person could hold a particular office.

And -- listen up all of you challengers out there -- this was the same election year in which many who either prevailed or were elected in later years made promises that, regardless of whether constitutions were amended or not, they would limit their own service to a certain number of terms. Don't be too surprised to see opponents researching those fiery speeches by those then-hopeful upstarts, who today are the "entrenched incumbents" against whom they once railed.

Those of us who thought we were so smart just a few months ago in predicting that the recession would soon be declared over forgot that the very consumer optimism that kept the nation going throughout last year's economic downturn could never be expected to endure month after month of bad news -- be it wars or corporate investigations -- without finally turning to skepticism. Endless months of uncertainty inevitably lead to frustration.

Those who study the election cycle of 10 years ago will note that as that political season reached its climax, the word most used by voters to describe how they felt about politicians and their policies was "frustrated." There was a sort of "anti-establishment" attitude that seemed to dominate the sentiments of voters by Election Day 1992. Many favorites and incumbents survived. Others, such as President Bush, did not.

But even those who survived, particularly Democrat incumbents, were badly damaged. When the Republican sweep came just two years later, many of those who had survived in '92 were swept out of office.

Early evidence suggests that 2002 might truly be a repeat of the 1992 political season. Already, some highly favored primary candidates, such as former Los Angeles mayor and 2002 California gubernatorial candidate Richard Riordan, have been defeated by lesser-known hopefuls. And many well-known incumbent senators and governors, both Republican and Democrat, face lower-than-expected approval ratings as their campaigns start to gear up.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that a continued sluggish economy, as well as general confusion among voters about where the nation is headed, would hurt Republicans more than Democrats. But that's not necessarily the case. President Bush remains a popular president with his warmth and personality. The elder Bush lacked this connection with the public, even though those who know him consider him to be one of the nicest and most sincere people they've ever met.

But warmth, sincerity and even wartime leadership are often lost amid political attack ads and spiraling bad news.

The confusion and unprecedented sense of uneasiness developing in our country may impact either or both political parties. But most likely, they will create additional concerns for those who are trying to hold on to their elected positions -- particularly those who pledged a decade ago to "get the job done . . . and come home."

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© 2001, Creators Syndicate