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Jewish World Review Nov. 11, 2002 / 6 Kislev, 5763

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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No more 49% nation |
The political scientists are going to have to rewrite the rules. Presidents' parties are not supposed to gain House seats in off-year elections, especially when the economy is sluggish. Presidents' parties are not supposed to recapture-in fact have never recaptured-a majority of seats in the Senate. Last week George W. Bush's Republicans-and they are George W. Bush's Republicans-did those improbable and impossible things. We now have a Republican government. The margins in both House and Senate are narrow but large enough to be impervious to a party-switcher.

Some Democrats console themselves with the thought that public opinion hasn't changed much.

In a post-election column shrewdly dissecting the Democrats' weaknesses, the insightful liberal E. J. Dionne wrote, "We remain a 50-50 country." Not quite. I was the first to write that we are a "49 percent nation" in the Almanac of American Politics 2002, in which I noted that Bill Clinton was re-elected with 49 percent, that George W. Bush and Al Gore both won 48 percent, and that Republicans held the House in 1996, 1998, and 2000 by popular vote margins of 49-48.5, 49-48, and 49-48 percent. So I took the trouble to total up the popular vote for the House this time. The figures now available are incomplete and may contain a few errors, but the total is unlikely to be off by more than 1 percent. The result: Republicans 52 percent, Democrats 46 percent. This looks quite different from 49 to 48 percent and very much like the Republicans' 1994 House majority of 52 to 45 percent. Republicans led 56 to 41 percent in the South and 50 to 47 percent outside the South. They ran only slightly behind in the East, narrowly ahead in the West, and well ahead in the Midwest. "The United States may remain a 50-50 nation," writes the Nation'sDavid Corn, the most clear-eyed writer on the left, "though it feels more like 52-48 at the moment." Yep.

Setting priorities. The question now is what the Republicans are going to do with their majorities. The first thing, of course, is to prosecute the war against terrorism. Bush's off-year victory evidently took the oomph out of our chief opponent at the United Nations, France, and the United States should be able to take military action to end the regime of Saddam Hussein this winter. Then there will be the task of building a decent postwar Iraq and of spurring the revolution that seems likely to oust the mullahs in Iran. More needs to be done, as I believe Bush knows, to stop the Saudis' propagation of totalitarian Wahhabi Islam around the world. The United States needs to defeat and demoralize the Islamists who seek to destroy our civilization and our freedoms.

At home, we can expect Bush to put forward a new domestic agenda. His 2000 agenda-tax cuts, education, Medicare reform, Social Security individual accounts-is half accomplished, and Social Security will not move forward until Bush has won a second term running on the issue. (It helps that the age group most opposed, the G.I. generation, will never again cast as large a share of the vote as it did in 2002.)

What we can expect is healthcare reform-providing more choices, including prescription drug benefits, in Medicare, and in healthcare generally-plus tax reform, something like the 1986 bill that eliminated preferences and cut tax rates, and more initiatives to increase choice, competition, and quality in education. Senate Democrats will try to obstruct. But where Bush leads, the Republican Congress will mostly follow.

The election 2002 most closely resembles is 1962. Then as now, we had a president who was a scion of a political family elected by a narrow margin, regarded by the opposition party as fraudulently installed and dismissed by the opposition and much of the press as a lucky lightweight despite his high job ratings. In 1962, John F. Kennedy's party gained seats in the Senate and his liberal coalition gained seats in the House, and he went on in the face of foreign dangers to put forward domestic programs-civil rights, tax cuts-that enabled his party to rise from parity in 1960 up toward his 60 percent job-rating level by 1964. (Fall 1963 polls showed Kennedy before he died was on his way to the landslide his successor achieved.) Bush has the opportunity to do the same today.

The opposition party today, like 40 years ago, is falling into the hands of its wingers, whose hatred and contempt for a popular president are a grave political handicap. We are in the process of moving from 49-49 to somewhere else, quite possibly to a stable Republican majority.

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Michael Barone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2002, Michael Barone