Politics is changing
11/12/2001 12:00:00 AM - George Will
WASHINGTON--Karl Rove, George W. Bush's boon companion for many years and now his counselor, studies history because he knows that those who do not learn from history will not be able to repeat it. His reiterated desire is to repeat what Republicans achieved with William McKinley's victory in the 1896 presidential election--an ascendancy that resulted in seven victories in nine presidential elections.
Last week, one year to the day after the 2000 presidential election deadlocked, and the day after the two major 2001 elections produced Democratic takeovers of the New Jersey and Virginia governorships, Rove surveyed the political landscape placidly. The gubernatorial outcomes were predictable. Both winners were on their second time around the track, each having run unsuccessfully statewide, and both states' Republican parties were riven by feuds.
In Virginia, Gov.-elect Mark Warner applied a lesson from Al Gore's campaign: Do not annoy the National Rifle Association with gun control proposals. It reciprocated with passivity. And, Rove notes, for the first time in history Virginia Republicans won a statewide office down the ballot (attorney general) while losing the governorship. The attorney general candidate got more votes than the governor-elect did, and Republican strength in Virginia's House of Delegates surged from 52 to 64 seats, even as Warner was winning.
These outcomes reflect the national tendency toward ticket-splitting. That is indicative of light party attachment, which bodes well for Bush's attempts to detach lightly partisan Democrats.
Rove knows that Bush's current stratospheric standing in polls is perishable. He says that 41 weeks after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt's support, which had spiked, declined to a new equilibrium. However, Rove believes Democrats mistakenly rest their 2002 hopes on the fact that in 1942, 11 months after Pearl Harbor, the president's party lost 45 House and nine Senate seats.
Rove notes that five of those senators had been pulled into office by President Roosevelt's 1936 tidal wave--he carried every state except Maine and Vermont--and were likely to be washed away in the next election in any case. Furthermore, he says, days before the 1942 election the government made the country cranky by announcing coffee rationing--amounting to one cup a day.
Republicans believe they will benefit, on balance, from House redistricting, and although they will be defending six more Senate seats than the Democrats (20 to 14), Rove believes eight Democratic incumbents are vulnerable--in Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa, Missouri, Georgia, Louisiana, Montana and New Jersey. In the last two especially, if former Republican governors Marc Racicot and Tom Kean can be enticed into running. The recruitment of Kean is particularly promising.
In California, the Republican Party has been wasting away through three election cycles, and not even heavy spending could make Bush competitive last year. However, Rove recalls that California's GOP was declared dead after Richard Nixon lost his gubernatorial race in 1962, but four years later it sent Ronald Reagan to Sacramento. Next year the Republican candidate--Republican primary voters willing--will be former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. He is wealthy enough to partially offset Gov. Gray Davis' prodigious fund-raising talents, popular in a Democratic city and currently slightly ahead of Davis in polls.
What remains unclear is how post-Sept. 11 politics will be different. Perhaps events outside politics are harbingers of a new unpredictability, even adventurousness.
Recently the head of the nation's second-largest automobile manufacturer, Ford, and the head of the nation's second-largest airline, United, were cashiered. A judge told the parties to an interminable antitrust action--the one against the American company with the second-largest market capitalization, Microsoft--that the economy has quite enough uncertainties, so please settle.
The Federal Reserve Board cut the short-term interest rate and the discount rate to the lowest level since 1961 and 1955 respectively. The state of Pennsylvania, its patience exhausted, embarked on perhaps the most radical remedial program ever mounted regarding urban schools, taking control of Philadelphia's public school system, the nation's sixth-largest, firing 55 top administrators and replacing them with managers hired by a private firm, and involving clergy, universities and businesses in running the 60 worst schools. Even Major League Baseball got into the act, deciding to extinguish two weak franchises.
Perhaps most of these decisions would have been made as they were and when they were even without Sept. 11. However, what feels like an accelerated churning of American society may be an effect of that cause. Having experienced the unthinkable, Americans may have begun thinking more decisively and expansively than they otherwise might have. If so, 2002 may reward those who are not risk-averse, and may punish those who do not have ideas for the further churning of America.