Last Tuesday’s elections have spawned many myths, some half-truths and a few truths. The first myth is that the Republican Party swept the elections. Americans remain split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. Of the 78 million votes that were cast, only 41,000 votes in just two states determined who ultimately gained control of the Senate. As expected, voter turn out was low, at 39%. In California, the most populous state, it was 32%.
The second myth is that anyone who voted against the “Attack Iraq” resolution was defeated. Congresswoman Nancy Pilosi of San Francisco, who had opposed the resolution, won hands down with more than 80% of the vote. She is about to become the first woman House Minority Whip, with the departure of Richard Gephardt from that position. Across the Bay, in Oakland, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who not only voted against the “Attack Iraq” resolution-but who had also cast the single negative vote in the entire House of Representatives against the “Attack Afghanistan” resolution-won with more than 80% of the vote. At the same time, Democratic incumbents Max Cleland of Georgia and Jean Carnahan of Missouri, who had voted in favor of the resolution, were defeated.
The third myth is that George W. Bush is invincible. The Republicans did indeed gain control of both Houses of Congress, but their majorities are small. As noted by the Economist, “The next race for the presidency could be just as close as the last one.” With his poor syntax and strident tone, President Bush comes across as a bumbling if indignant simpleton to many Americans who believe he is simply a front man for right-wing hawks in the Republican Party. Bush has neither the intellect of Bill Clinton nor the charisma of John F. Kennedy. He has none of the story telling ability of Ronald Reagan. And he lacks the humanism of Jimmy Carter.
The first half-truth is that President Bush pulled off a feat that had only happened a century ago under President Theodore Roosevelt. While it is indeed true that he is the first Republican president since Teddy Roosevelt to have gained control over both houses in a mid-term election, two other Democrats have performed the same feat. Franklin D. Roosevelt picked up seats after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and John F. Kennedy picked up seats after the Cuban missile crisis.
The first truth is that the Republicans ran on a single-point agenda that capitalized on the tragic events of September 11. Karl Rove, who sits in the West Wing of the White House, masterminded the election strategy. He helped to refine part of Bush’s stump speech that drew some of the biggest applause during the campaign trail. He insisted that the president make a reference to acts of terrorism against civilian Americans, and vow to “hunt down these cold-blooded killers one by one.” This phrase capitalized on a psychology of fear that had been triggered by the horrific events of 9/11. It rekindled concerns about future dangers, by reminding voters of the imminent threat posed by Saddam’s use of weapons of mass destruction. The threat, in an unexpected way, became very tangible as two snipers went on a three-week rampage of serial killings in the vicinity of Washington, DC.
The second truth is the president’s blitz campaign during the last five days before the elections-in which he went on a ten thousand mile tour, visiting seventeen cities in fifteen states-made a major impact. Ken Duberstein, a former chief of staff to President Reagan, said, “It took the oxygen out of other issues. When the president comes into a state, all the news is dominated by the president and Air Force One.” The president’s decision to visit Minnesota, and campaign on behalf of the Republican Senate candidate, may well be the primary reason why former vice president Walter Mondale was defeated in the Senate race. The Democratic incumbent, Senator Paul Wellstone, was widely expected to have been re-elected, had he not been killed in a plane crash a few days prior to the election. He had voted against the Attack Iraq resolution.
The third truth is that the Democrats did not offer a credible alternative on domestic policy, especially on how to fix the ailing the economy. They failed to exploit the obvious opportunities that such a situation presents to the opposition party in any country. Examples of overlooked facts include the following. Consumer confidence is at its lowest level in nine years. Corporate scandals continue unabated. The National Bureau of Economic Research has not announced that the recession that began in March 2001 is over, and economists expect the GDP to grow at an anemic rate of 1% in the fourth quarter. To jump-start a stalled economy, a nervous Federal Reserve Bank has cut the federal funds rate by half a percentage point to 1.25%. The rate, which was 6.5% just a year ago, has been cut 11 times so far. The US budget has a deficit of $159 billion, and it is still expected to be in the red next year by $145 billion, prior to counting the cost of a war against Iraq. If current trends continue, the deficit is likely to rise to the $200-300 billion range by the year 2005.
The fourth truth is that the Democrats lined up behind the president on foreign policy, and were anxious to not be seen as wimps, appeasers or unpatriotic. Thus, they joined the Republicans in supporting the White House’s Attack Iraq resolution. When it passed with a two-third majority in the House and a three-quarter’s majority in the Senate, they simply conceded leadership to President Bush who is now “as strong as potash” according to Democratic Senator Zell Miller of Georgia.
In summary, the Republicans are indeed victorious, and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi has said, “we’ll go on the offensive now.” The most visible trend will be the continued militarization of US foreign policy. A Department of Home Security will be established, and the Attorney General will continue to curtail civil liberties by prosecuting Americans under the PARIOT act. There will be more targeted killings of alleged al-Qaida leaders using Hellfire missiles. War against Iraq is a virtual certainty, and will most likely occur in January of February. Washington under the Republicans will continue to pursue a strategy for remaking the entire Muslim world, beginning with the Middle East and proceeding on to Central Asia. All of this may herald victory for the Democrats in 2004.