Changing of the guard
As goodwill towards the Republicans apparently runs dry in the US mid-term elections, Philip James sees regime change on the horizon for Congress
Thursday September 7, 2006
For the first time in 12 long years, the balance of power in the House of Representatives may tip back to Democrats, according to pollsters from both parties. Dissatisfaction with the Iraq war, which will soon have dragged on longer than US involvement in the second world war, is the main factor, along with unease about the economy.
After over a decade of powerlessness, congressional Democrats can smell victory but they dare not shout it from the rooftops, mindful of how skilled they've been at plucking defeat from the jaws of victory in recent history, most notably in 2000, when they lost the House and the presidency by the slimmest of margins.
The latest polling data reveals a stunning array of negatives for the incumbent party. According to the most recent New York Times poll, almost two thirds of the electorate believes the country is heading in the wrong direction, a keynote indicator that voters are ready for a change. A similar number of voters believe the president is doing a bad job, and traditionally voters punish the party of a president they hold in low esteem at mid-term elections. But the question giving Democrats most cheer, eight weeks out from polling day, is: Do you approve or disapprove of the way George Bush is handling the situation in Iraq?
At the time of the last election, the nation was evenly split on this question. Today, a solid majority of Americans have turned against the war, and this gives Democrats their first real opening in a political climate still dominated by national security. No longer must they thread the doublethink needle of being for the war, but against the prosecution of it. Now they can full-throatedly speak their mind on the topic, without fear of appearing unpatriotic.
For two years straight, from the invasion of Iraq to the ceremonial handover of power to the Iraqis, the Republican administration got away with linking the Iraq war with the wider war on terror. Anyone who questioned US involvement in Iraq could not be trusted to keep the country safe. But that argument has swayed fewer and fewer Americans, as they've seen Iraq fall into chaos and the civilian and military death toll climb.
The loss of Iraq as a political trump card for Republicans has left them grasping for rhetoric. Suddenly, according to George Bush, the outlaw cave dweller Osama bin Laden is Adolf Hitler, his musings as big a threat to the world as were the totalitarian visions of the Soviet Union and fascist Germany. The intention is to paint Democrats as the party of placation - their willingness to rethink the war in Iraq, a fatal weakness in the face of evil.
This heady hyperbole will convince some. It may convince many, but even some Republicans are no longer buying it. Representing a group of Republicans facing a tough re-election battle, Congressman Chris Shays of Connecticut - hitherto a staunch supporter of the war - recently broke from party doctrine to suggest there should be a timeline for US troop withdrawal from Iraq, and in an unusual display of candour, contradicted the White House by concluding: "I have not seen ... noticeable improvement in Iraq since the election in December 2005".
Republicans are in trouble in 22 states all over the electoral map. There are currently 36 competitive races in Republican held districts, up from 19 at the beginning of this year, according to the non-partisan Cook report. Democrats would have to win 15 of these to retake control of the House.
A 15 seat swing in the House would be modest compared to the 54-seat net gain by Republicans in their "revolution" of 1994, but a lot has to go right for Democrats to emerge as the majority in November. If the mood in the country stays the same, their chances are good, but they must resist the temptation to over-reach. For instance a Senate Democrat proposal to remove the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, from office is an ill-advised protest vote that would not alter White House policy, and only plays into Republican charges that Democrats are the enemy within.
Republicans are pinning their hopes on the one bright spot in the polls for them that gives the president high marks for handling the war on terrorism. Voters credit the President for the absence of a terrorist attack on US soil, since September 11 2001. But even this "natural" advantage could be turned against Republicans. In the words of the White House's latest strategy issued this month for combating terrorism, "terrorist networks today are more dispersed and less centralised. They are more reliant on smaller cells inspired by a common ideology and less directed by a central command structure."
In other words, instead of a small concentrated number of miscreants, our enemies have multiplied, become more radicalised and splintered, so that they are harder to track down. The question Democrats should frame is: Are we really safer with Republicans in charge?
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