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Which Way U.S.A.?

GOP could pull off the unexpected and achieve midterm electoral gains if current trends hold up.

January 13, 2002|KEVIN PHILLIPS

WASHINGTON — Like 2000 and 2001, this year is likely to be the year of the unexpected. But not entirely. Turn-of-the-century periods have an unusual psychological characteristic. People tend to refocus on trends already evident and project them into the new century. The years 2000-2001 have displayed less technology worship and more traditional religion, less new world order and more disorder, and less pie-in-the-sky economics and more evidence that neither markets nor government central bankers can work magic.

It's a bit premature, then, for events in November, December and early January to support optimism about improving economic and military conditions over the next 12 months. But should an upbeat scenario prove correct, it would replace two longtime precedents suggesting Republican political and electoral vulnerability with rare opportunities.

Since President Herbert Hoover's day, every Republican administration has had a recession or serious regional downturn keynote party losses in midterm congressional elections. Second, U.S. 20th-century wars have usually created enough disillusionment in their first 12 to 20 months to cost the party in the White House seats in the next midterm elections.

Suppose, instead, that neither precedent holds this November because economic recovery has been building for two to three quarters and the American public is satisfied that terrorism and Osama bin Laden have been defeated. In this case, the GOP could break its midterm pattern of losing congressional strength. A gain would have major implications for policymaking and politics in the next two years.

The GOP must worry, though, that a lot can go wrong in the 10 months before elections. Forecasters are divided about the country's economic prospects, but even some relative optimists see unemployment, a lagging indicator, rising through election day. Besides, a resurgence in the major stock indices but not in employment could be attacked by Democrats as a Wall Street recovery and a Main Street abandonment. A similar "recovery" in 1991-92 led to the defeat of President Bush's father.

Global forces could also be negative. Deepening economic weakness in Japan and South America, in particular, already hint that bail-outs and central-bank rescue missions have run out of magic. If this problem spreads to the United States--if Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's unprecedented series of 11 interest rate cuts in 2001 prove incapable of heading off a second-stage decline--public confidence would probably shatter by summer. Few predict such a scenario, however.

A second round of terrorist attacks on the United States could, in theory, target economic assets. An unnerving article by Stephen E. Flynn in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine identifies major U.S. bridges, transportation systems, customs operations and harbors as a "soft underbelly of globalization" vulnerable to sabotage. The risks here are simply unknowable.

Where the war on terrorism is headed globally is not much clearer. Despite the White House's war whoops against evildoers, few of the major ones have been caught in Afghanistan. Even in the E-ring, or "outer corridor," of the Pentagon, questions are being quietly raised about how much of a victory the bombing campaign and tribal alliances achieved if Bin Laden, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and their chief Al Qaeda and Taliban associates got away.

The British in the 19th century and the Russians in the 1980s were defeated in Afghanistan because their large ground forces were so bloodied that they had to pull out. The U.S. war effort there now faces the opposite critique: that a minimal, inadequate U.S. ground commitment required reliance on tribal allies who let the Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders get away (or didn't even seek them out).

Capturing or killing Bin Laden would end the grumbling. Historically, Americans have put a face on their wars. In colonial times, there was King Philip's War in New England and Pontiac's War on the frontier. During World War I, it was "Hang the Kaiser." Adolf Hitler was the focus of World War II. Lacking demon figures in the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts, U.S. voter commitment flagged. In 1990-91, after then-President George Bush demonized Iraq's Saddam Hussein, the failure to topple him fostered the perception that Bush had not won much of a victory in the Persian Gulf War.

Bin Laden's face is just as clearly stamped on the Sept. 11 attacks. U.S. failure to locate him, followed by a resumption of terrorist attacks in America and Europe, could make the bombing of Afghanistan look as effective as the U.S. military's success in kicking Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991.

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