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Repubs Seize Reins Of Power

by Jim Lobe

on 2002 election
(IPS) -- In a major victory for President George W. Bush, Republican candidates increased their narrow majority in the House of Representatives and, more importantly, gained a slight majority in the Senate in elections on Tuesday.

The Republicans gained at least three seats in the House, and -- with several Senate seats remaining to be decided -- at least two in the Senate, restoring their control of the upper body that they lost in May 2001, after a disaffected moderate Republican, Vermont Sen. James Jeffords, declared himself an independent.

Republican control of both houses of Congress and the White House -- the first time this has happened since President Dwight Eisenhower's first term 50 years ago -- means that legislation and judicial nominations strongly backed by the Christian Right that have been held up in the Senate for months, could be approved as early as next week.

It may also mean less resistance to the administration's drive for war against Iraq. Although a majority of Senate Democrats voted last month to give Bush authority to launch military operations, they also expressed strong reservations.

"There is a war coming," said Tucker Carlson, a Republican analyst with CNN. "It's going to begin to unfold in the next couple of months, and this [election] puts the president in a much stronger position to orchestrate it."

The Republican victories in Congress defied a historical pattern in which the party that holds the White House loses ground in mid-term elections. The last time the presidential party gained seats in Congress came during the Great Depression almost 70 years ago, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president.

"I think the president has won a big victory," conceded former Vice President Walter Mondale, who was defeated in a close Senate race that he entered only a week ago, to fill the slot held by the Democratic incumbent, Paul Wellstone, killed in plane crash at the end of October. "He will claim a mandate. I think the public will accept that."

Indeed, Bush, who has raised far more money for his party than any other sitting president, threw himself into the Republican effort during the last two weeks of the campaign, appearing repeatedly in states where the closest races were being fought.

Analysts credited the Republicans with a well-conceived strategy that both mobilized their right-wing base and identified with Democratic concerns about reducing health costs and protecting Social Security. Bush himself talked up fears of Iraq and terrorism, which, according to some analysts, may have tilted the balance for many Republican candidates among voters who remained undecided until the end.

Democrats, by contrast, were seen above all as having failed to offer a coherent message that mobilized their own base, particularly minority and labor voters who, according to some, did not show up at the polls in the numbers needed to ensure Democratic victories.

That was particularly true in key southern states like Georgia, where Democrats lost a Senate seat they thought was secure, along with the governorship for the first time in more than a century, and in so-called "border states," like Missouri, which lie along the old Civil War border between the Union and the Confederacy. The black population in these states is quite large, and recent elections there have shown that black turnout is key to Democratic success.

"Republicans came out in large numbers, and Democrats didn't," said Robert Borosage, director of the Campaign for America's Future, who criticised the Democratic leadership for a "mistaken strategy" that was designed to "appeal to independent voters in an off-year election rather than mobilizing [their] base".

For example, polling showed that Wellstone, the most left-wing member of the Senate Democratic caucus, was emerging as the clear winner in a closely contested fight in Minnesota before his death. Mondale, his replacement, posed a much more moderate image and went down to defeat.

"This is a defeat for the accommodationist wing of the party," said Paul Begala, a Democratic commentator for CNN and a top aide to former President Bill Clinton. "If you back the president on tax cuts and you back the president on Iraq, what the hell do you stand for?"

"The problem is, we didn't offer an alternative," replied James Carville, another former Clinton aide. "We're sitting with the most pro-corporate administration in history," he added, "in a weak economy, in a mismanaged economy, and the Democrats never articulated a case. And I think they're paying the price for that."

"There's going to be a lot of blame going around," Stuart Rothenburg, a prominent political analyst, told CNN on Wednesday. "Liberal Democrats are going to say, 'We didn't fight hard enough; we didn't take the president on; we didn't talk about good Democratic populist issues'."

"Moderates are going to say, 'No, whatever it was, it was technical factors, financial factors; maybe we had the wrong candidates'. We're going to see a lot arguing within the Democratic Party now."

Democrats did get some good news. They captured the governorships in a number of traditionally Republican states, particularly those in financial difficulties arising from Republican-sponsored tax cuts.

But they did not take the statehouses of two major targets where they were given a good chance of winning: Bush's home state of Texas, and Florida, where his brother Jeb won re-election by a larger-than-expected margin.

Some analysts pointed out that Republican control of all branches of the federal government may yet have its drawbacks, if only because Bush will not be able to blame the Democrats if things go bad for the economy or the war on terrorism if he runs for re-election two years from now.

Some also said that Bush and the Republican leadership -- the most right-wing since the Reagan era -- also risk over-reaching both in foreign affairs, where some in the party and his administration are already urging him to take the anti-terrorist campaign beyond Iraq in the Middle East and even to North Korea -- and on the domestic front.

At home, Bush will be pressed to provide more tax cuts to corporations, ease environmental and other regulations, and pursue a Christian Right agenda more aggressively.

"The irony is that this is totally out of step with where the majority of Americans are," notes Borosage. Republicans, he says, had to downplay their positions on all of these issues during the campaign in order to blur their differences with Democrats.

"Whether they can get away it under the screen of Iraq and the war on terrorism will be a central issue over the next two years."

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Albion Monitor November 8 2002 (

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