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Election 2002 | NEWS ANALYSIS

Bush's Lead Role in Election Pays Off

November 06, 2002|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Republican gains in Tuesday's election testified to the transformation of President Bush's standing with the American public in the months since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

With his job approval rating approaching the midterm election as high as any president's since John F. Kennedy's in 1962, Bush threw himself into the campaign, gambling that he could transform his personal popularity into congressional gains for the GOP.

His bet paid off, spectacularly. Bush managed a historic feat Tuesday night: He helped his party win seats in both chambers of Congress during his first midterm election. Since the Civil War, the only other president to achieve such a midterm sweep was Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934, when he was still basking in the glow of his first 100 days and the New Deal.

The GOP didn't gain as much ground on Capitol Hill on Tuesday as Democrats did in 1934. And the Republican advance wasn't unqualified; Democrats pointed with pride at their recapture of the governor's offices in big states such as Michigan, Illinois and Pennsylvania.

But the Democratic successes in those states couldn't salve the disappointment over the dramatic setbacks on Capitol Hill. Retaking the Senate and holding the House at a time when Americans were so uneasy about the economy represents an enormous achievement for the GOP -- and a critical missed chance for the Democrats.

"You have to look at it from their perspective and say it was a blown opportunity," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The strong GOP showing, amid widespread uneasiness over the economy, is bound to produce intense finger-pointing from dissident Democrats who believe the congressional leadership failed to define a clear alternative agenda to Bush's, especially on the economy.

"The most significant fact politically of the past 18 months has been the incapacity of the Democratic Party to mount an effective critique of the Bush economic program or to propose a meaningful alternative to it," said Bill Galston, a top domestic policy advisor to President Clinton.

Likewise, former Clinton campaign manager James Carville declared on CNN on Tuesday night: "Part of the Democrats' problem is timidity."

Tuesday's Republican gains were more a tilt than a tide; though they bucked the historic precedent, the GOP advances didn't approach the scale of the party's breakthrough in 1994.

Yet because the parties have been so balanced over the last half-decade, even small changes in the vote can trigger large tremors in Washington. The Republican gains in the Senate were modest, but because the Democrats held such a precarious majority to start, they were enough to move the GOP back into control.

In a period when neither party has established a lasting hold on the electorate, the new GOP majority will still be small enough that Democrats can legitimately hope to recapture the chamber in 2004. Yet in that next election, Democrats will face the same challenge they did this year: a battlefield that favors Republicans.

Half of the 14 Democrats seeking reelection this fall ran in the "red" states that Bush won in 2000, as did all of the seven leading Democratic challengers. With Bush's popularity high, these Democrats became extremely reluctant to disagree with the president; almost all endorsed his tax cut and his demand for congressional authority to invade Iraq.

That made it tough for Democratic leaders to fashion an opposition agenda to Bush in the Senate, since so many of the "red state" Democrats were reluctant to vote against the administration, or to devise a sharp critique of Bush's record on the campaign trail.

Meanwhile, Republicans such as Rep. Saxby Chambliss, who defeated Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., and Rep. Lindsey O. Graham, who won an open Senate seat in South Carolina, effectively highlighted national security themes that loomed larger for voters in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Republicans beat at least two "red state" Senate Democrats: Jean Carnahan in Missouri and Cleland in Georgia, and were closing in on a third, Tim Johnson in South Dakota.

Of the seven seriously contested Senate seats the GOP was defending in red states, it lost only one: Sen. Tim Hutchinson, hobbled by controversy over his personal life, was defeated in Arkansas.

The same "red-state" challenge will reemerge in 2004, when nine of the 19 Democratic senators up for reelection will be running in states that Bush carried -- six in states he carried by double digits. Of the 15 Republicans facing reelection in 2004, just three are in the "blue" states that Al Gore carried in 2000.

If "red-state" Democrats were hesitant about confronting Bush when he didn't appear on the ballot, they may be even more reluctant when he is running.

That could give Bush added leverage to push his agenda, especially on further tax cuts, through a Senate still divided so narrowly.

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