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Jewish World Review Nov. 20, 2001 / 5 Kislev 5762

Morton Kondracke

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Dems need economy and history to win


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- DEMOCRATS have just lost "We wuz robbed in the presidential election" as an argument for votes in 2002, so they'd better hope that history and a bad economy prevail over President Bush's popularity as a wartime president.

In the meantime, Republicans have to be praying for an economic recovery by the second quarter of next year, good results in the war on terrorism, and their status as incumbents at a time of renewed public trust in government.

Some analysts -- including me -- optimistically anticipated that Sept. 11 would transform American politics, engendering bipartisan unity and discouraging negative campaigning.

But recent battles over the economic-stimulus package, federal judicial nominations and airline security -- not to mention negative ads run recently in Virginia and New Jersey -- suggest that the tone of the upcoming campaign will be "same old, same old," as one GOP consultant put it. One issue appears to be off the table, though. The notion that Florida Republicans and the U.S. Supreme Court "stole" the presidency in 2000 didn't have much lasting sway with voters, and it's now been buried by a media consortium's review of uncounted ballots.

The review revealed that Bush would have carried Florida and the election even if the Supreme Court didn't halt the Florida Supreme Court-ordered recount or if former Vice President Al Gore had won a recount in four predominantly Democratic counties.

Democrats can comfort themselves with the knowledge that more Floridians intended to vote for Gore than Bush, but that's no argument that Bush was "selected, not elected," as sometimes asserted by Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe.

Ballots of black voters seem to have been disqualified in disproportionate numbers. However, that fact merely makes the case for better voter education, not claims that blacks were "disenfranchised."

A study by the American Enterprise Institute suggests that the ballots most likely to be disqualified were those of African-American Republicans, not Democrats.

Obviously, with a year to go before the next election, no one can be sure what will be uppermost in voters' minds, but history is emphatically with the opposition party, even in wartime, and especially during periods of recession.

The president's party almost always loses Congressional seats in off-year elections, and several analysts have found that this trend applies even when the public supports the president's war policies.

In 1942, 11 months after Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt's Democrats lost 50 House and nine Senate seats. In 1950, with Democrat Harry S. Truman leading the country during the Korean War, Republicans picked up 29 House and six Senate seats.

In 1966, before the tide of public opinion had turned against Democrat Lyndon Johnson's commitment to Vietnam, Republicans won 47 House and three Senate seats. In 1970, as Republican Richard Nixon was reducing U.S. troop levels in Vietnam, his party lost 18 House seats, though they picked up two in the Senate.

And in 1990, two months after Iraq invaded Kuwait and as President George Bush was gearing up for the Gulf War, his party lost nine House seats and one Senate seat.

One significant departure from the pattern occurred in 1962, after Democratic President John F. Kennedy successfully managed the Cuban missile crisis. Republicans picked up only one House seat, and Democrats actually gained five in the Senate.

If history has any bearing on 2002, Republicans' best hope is for some smashing success in the war against terrorism next October. Barring that, they had better hope that the economy recovers by the second quarter or that defense and security issues remain at the top of the public's agenda.

Clearly, they can't simply depend upon Bush's popularity to produce Republican victories. His job-approval percentage rating is in the high 80s, but the GOP runs no better than even in most generic polls on 2002 voting.

In early October, a Gallup Poll showed that foreign affairs, military affairs and defense had leapt to the top of the public's agenda, replacing education and Medicare -- though not the economy -- as major public concerns.

Asked which party they had confidence in to handle terrorism, Republicans beat Democrats 56 percent to 21 percent. On the economy, the score was a virtual tie.

A Democracy Corps poll conducted late last month by Democrat Stan Greenberg revealed that terrorism remains at the top of the agenda; however, by 58 percent to 25 percent, voters are looking for a Congressional candidate who will devote time to domestic issues, such as the economy, health care and education.

The poll also showed that sizable majorities favor all the items in the Democratic stimulus package, while there is limited support for GOP ideas such as reducing corporate tax rates and eliminating the corporate alternative minimum tax.

The survey also suggested that Democrats could profit by calling for a delay in tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent in order to pay for rebuilding after terrorism and preserve Social Security. Respondents approved of such a policy by a margin of 69 percent to 28 percent.

If Democrats take this tack in 2002, Republicans will surely respond -- with some justice -- with the claim that Democrats are the party of taxing and spending. It'll be almost as though Sept. 11 hadn't happened.



JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

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