WASHINGTON--On election night 2002, election night 2000 ended. The affirmation of the president on Tuesday must be especially sweet because it was so delayed.
Understanding better than his father did the iron law of political capital--use it or lose it--George W. Bush invested his high public standing in party-building. His success gives Republicans protracted control of a unified government for the first time since 1954.
It is control conferred by some narrow victories. But small undulations of the electorate have been having big consequences for a generation.
In 1980, a cumulative shift of 21,470 votes in four states would have prevented Republican capture of the Senate, blocking Ronald Reagan's agenda. In 1982, a switch of 31,095 votes in five states would have given the Senate back to the Democrats. In 1986, 24,626 votes in five states gave the Senate back to the Democrats. In 2000, a switch of 1,115 votes in Washington state would have rendered Republican control of the Senate invulnerable to the defection of Vermont's Jim Jeffords. The 2000 election produced a House with 221 Republicans, 212 Democrats and two independents (one supporting each party), but a collective shift of just 2,750 votes in five districts would have made Dick Gephardt speaker.
As the Democrats' recriminations begin, their diminished House membership may be tempted to say: Four times since our 1994 shellacking (52 seats lost) we have tried to recapture the House with Gephardt's centrism. It is time to try the high-octane liberalism of California's Nancy Pelosi, House Democratic whip. Such reasoning contains the seeds of future defeats.
America's temperate political struggles generally take place between the
40-yard lines. This year they took place between the 49-yard lines. Most Republicans shelved their bold ideas (Social Security reform, school choice). Most Democrats, by flinching from opposition to the president's tax cuts, rendered incoherent their criticism of his economic management. And they forfeited their redistributionist egalitarianism. But that forfeit spared them an even worse electoral spanking.
Most voters are investors, but stock market turbulence did not occasion political turbulence. Voters have seen $8 trillion in wealth evaporate--$1 trillion more than Americans' disposable income this year--but have made a sophisticated judgment about the chronology and complex causes of current economic difficulties.
Tuesday's results demonstrate the stupidity of the ``It's the economy, stupid'' school of political analysis. Voters are almost always moved by social currents deeper than the eddies on the economy's surface. The economy did less damage to Republicans than Senate Democrats did to themselves.
The president's political aides believe that two Democratic actions handed Republicans election-turning issues. One was the promiscuous opposition to the president's judicial nominees. And regarding homeland security legislation, Senate Democrats' boundless subservience to organized labor has made them refuse to grant the president organizational powers granted to every president since Jimmy Carter.
Furthermore, the vulgarity of the politicized memorial service for Paul Wellstone may have cost the Democrats Minnesota's Senate contest. If so, that, too, was condign punishment. It was a wholesome rejection of contemporary liberalism's belief that because government should be everything, politics should be everywhere.
More than at any time since the decade before the Civil War, the two major parties are competitive in every region. Part of the long echo of the Republicans' 1994 sweep was an eight-year domination of the nation's governorships. By capturing the statehouses in Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania (three states Bush lost by 12, 5 and 4 points respectively in 2000), Democrats have complicated the president's 2004 re-election calculations.
The nation's knife-edge ideological balance extends to the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary generally. By regaining control of the Senate Judiciary Committee's gavel, Republicans will end the Democrats' anticonstitutional vitiation of the president's power to shape this third branch of government--two-term presidents usually replace about half of its judges.
There has not been a new Supreme Court justice for eight years, the longest period of stasis since 1811-1823. Republican control of the Senate may lead one or more conservative justices--perhaps Chief Justice William Rehnquist--to consider this a propitious moment to be replaced.
Not all winners and losers were on Tuesday's ballots. Jeffords, who after 34 years in public office as a Republican turned Washington upside down by defecting to support Senate Democrats, now pays the price of his versatility of conviction. And Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist was the chief architect of the Republicans' recapture of the Senate, as candidate-recruiter and resource-allocator. He has made friends among Republican activists and honed skills that may serve him when the president's successor is to be chosen.
Tuesday's ripples will radiate for years.