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It's like WWI without mustard gas

How the race for Congress this fall mimics the Great War

September 03, 2006|Jonathan Chait | Jonathan Chait writes a weekly column for The Times.

STRAP ON YOUR HELMET. Fix that bayonet. It's time for a tour of the 2006 elections, and the best way to understand them is to understand World War I. Of course, the November elections will not mirror the Great War in every respect. There will be no use of mustard gas (hopefully). The Austro-Hungarian Empire probably won't play an important role. Nonetheless, the parallels are eerie.

Concentrated terrain

Despite being called a "world" war, the vast majority of fighting from 1914-1918 took place in a relatively limited space. The same is true of the 2006 elections. Collectively, they are a national election, but for most Americans, the fight will take place "over there." The battle for control of the Senate will take place mostly within five states where Republicans, who hold a five-seat advantage, look vulnerable: Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Missouri. Democrats lead in the first four and appear close to a tie in Missouri. To win the Senate outright, the Democrats would have to sweep those states and win one more, most likely Tennessee, a conservative state where the Republican has retired, or Virginia, a moderately conservative state where incumbent Republican George Allen is in a a tight race with former Reagan official-turned-Democrat James H. Webb.

Two of these races seem to hold the most interest because they may be testing grounds for new tactics by the Democrats. One is Pennsylvania, where Democrats have nominated Bob Casey Jr., despite the fact that he is an opponent of abortion rights. The other is Montana, where the Democratic nominee is Jon Tester, a beefy, populist farmer with a buzz cut. In both races, the Democrats' goal is to find a way to win back working-class voters who may be attracted to the party's economic platform but abhor the Democratic cultural agenda. Casey hopes to accomplish this by neutralizing the abortion issue. Tester's approach is less issue-based and more personality-based. These races may be the equivalent of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, where the British first introduced the tank into combat. In both cases, the significance of the battle lies less in the immediate outcome than in what it portends for the future use of a potent new tactic.

In the House, the terrain is even more concentrated than in the Senate. Democrats need to pick up just 15 seats out of 435 to win control. That may sound easy, but no more than a few dozen seats -- less than a tenth of the total -- appear remotely competitive. There are two reasons that more than nine-tenths of the House is out of play. One is that Republicans increasingly live near other Republicans and Democrats increasingly live among other Democrats, which reduces the number of districts with a close enough partisan balance to field a competitive election. The second is that members of both parties have drawn up districts in order to cement their incumbents in place. Gerrymandering is an ancient art, but the technology used to create districts has grown so sophisticated that both parties -- but especially Republicans -- have learned to use it with less shame and more sophistication.

California Democrats and Republicans are especially notorious practitioners, having drawn a map that safeguards the state's House incumbents from virtually all challenges. As a result, none of the expected competitive races lie within the Golden State.

As was the case in World War I, the limited terrain has spurred a strategic quarrel about widening the war. During the Great War, generals on both sides, but especially the Allies, debated whether to concentrate their resources in France, where the heaviest fighting took place, or to open fronts elsewhere, such as Turkey or Mesopotamia. Democrats are having the same debate today. Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is committing resources in all 50 states, with the long-term goal of making his party viable everywhere. This strategy has drawn bitter criticism from Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois and Charles E. Schumer of New York -- the Democrats in charge of directing their party's electoral campaign -- who insist that the 50-state goal has diverted resources from battleground states where control of Congress will be won.

Deep-rooted enmity

Democrats and Republicans have come to loathe one another in much the same way the Germans and Austrians hated the French, British and Russians. As the field of the battle has narrowed, each side has come to view the struggle in something close to apocalyptic terms.

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