It's the issues, dummy

Posted: Nov 12, 2002 12:00 AM
The Republicans won nine of the 12 close Senate races on Nov. 5. That didn't happen by accident. Those contests swung in the Republican's favor because the president spent the last two weeks in a campaign flurry. Everywhere he stumped the local news ran an endless political loop. He generated excitement and attention. His very presence added kick to state politics. It shocked people into paying close attention. Privately, some handlers worried that the president was taking an unnecessary risk by stumping so visibly. They worried that he would lose credibility if the Republicans ended up whiffing in the Senate. They worried that significant losses could expose Bush's 60 percent approval rating as nothing more than hangover from Sept. 11. Then a funny thing happened on Election Day. For the first time since 1934, the president's party picked up seats in the House and the Senate during the midterms. And they did so because the president's ideas on taxes, his doctrines on Iraq and Homeland Security carried the day. What did the Democrats muster in retort? Very little. Fearful of standing against the president on Iraq and of losing Southern voters if they butted heads on Bush's tax cuts, the Democrats took to the defensive and receded into a black hole from which they never managed to emerge. This is not a new pattern. When first elected, it was believed that that questions of legitimacy would preclude Bush from taking any bold policy steps. The thinking was straightforward: Congress was so equally divided that no leader could wield bipartisan support. With each side willing to dig in their heels and simply wait it out for another four years, the best the president could hope for was a few ceremonial victories. Deeply sensitive to poll numbers, many political advisors reasoned that a few ritual victories would surely be better than tethering one to significant losses on key issues. So the Democrats took their more controversial issues off the table and went on the defensive. Shockingly, President Bush refused to be a toady. He circled the wagons around core issues like a universal missile defense shield; a refusal to entertain the Kyoto Treaty, a Patient's Rights, and tax cuts. Most tellingly, Bush took definitive stands on controversial issues like faith based initiatives and stem cell research. Whereas the Democrats were busy consulting polls, President Bush did something rather astonishing - he displayed genuine leadership. And a funny thing happened, his credibility increased, not decreased-a fact that was perfectly embodied by the midterm election results. Gone now are the questions about legitimacy. Gone are the innuendoes of intellectual inferiority. The guy who the Democrats painted as bumbling just kicked their butts on every major policy front. He did so by establishing clear doctrines on homeland security, economy and foreign affairs. The Democrats had no such national message. They offered no overarching ideas. Instead, they simply called Bush names. Most recently, Sen. Hillary Clinton derided him as "President Select." It's the oldest trick in the book-if you can't attack the issue, attack the personality. That is all the Democrats have right now. And that's why the "bumbling guy" just swept the elections. Someone really ought to tell the Democrats, it's the issues dummy.