So the Republicans are back in control of the Senate, the House Democratic leadership is in disarray, and most ordinary Americans are breathing a collective sigh of “so what.” While all the pundits are absolutely shocked about the GOP under President Bush gaining seats in a midterm election, it’s not really all that surprising. Ever since the 2000 elections, the two parties have been so close together as to be totally indistinguishable. While they both have their radical wings, that hasn’t been the focus. And so, the American public, not having any sort of choice in the matter, unsurprisingly stuck with a popular president.
The world is a dangerous place right now. North Korea is developing nuclear weapons and there’s the constant saber-rattling around Iraq. On top of all that there’s the constant al Qaeda threat, reinforced by the recent Bali bombing and attacks elsewhere. I wouldn’t be surprised if Americans still feel extremely vulnerable. Bush and the Republican leadership gave a very strong reaction to September 11, and the American people have tended to trust Republicans more with defenseat least recently. The other Republican politician that emerged strongly after September 11 was Rudy Guliani. The Democrats simply have nobody who can present as strong an image to the world as Guliani or Bush can. This is a major liability, as the voters want the United States to look as strong as possible in this uncertain world.
Within this framework, the cliched call that “it’s the economy, stupid” does not resonate as well. On the whole, I doubt the electorate is particularly impressed with the way Bush and Co. have handled the recession. But most people have an inherent sense that a large part of the problems with the economy are directly related to the increasing international uncertainty.
It is true that a large amount of this uncertainty has been caused by the Bush administration’s beating of the war drums, but a lot of Americans, while not necessarily in favor of a unilateral strike, do realize that something needs to be done about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. More generally, Iraq remains a destabilizing presence in the Middle East. This situation cannot go on forever. Economic sanctions not only failed to topple Saddam’s regime, but have made life miserable for ordinary Iraqis, thanks mostly to mismanagement on the part of said regime. So a lot of people think that the U.S. must take action.
And it is the Bush administration that is being proactive, not only against Iraq but in prosecuting the war on terrorism elsewhere. He has taken a clear stance about the “axis of evil,” and yet explained why he is pursuing the idea of military action against Iraq and not doing so against North Korea. While I and a lot of other people think that the distinction is a bit contradictory, the clear leadership is appreciated by most, and this clarity is something that the Democrats have not been able to duplicate.
The Democrats have bought into Bush’s plan for the war on terrorism and a possible war against Iraq almost one hundred percent. While the liberal wing of the party protested against it, the leadership presented almost a united front behind the President. This represents the need to support a popular president during wartime, but it made the party lose its identity in foreign policy issues. Since so much of the President’s agenda is wrapped up in the war on terrorism, this effectively has emasculated any opportunity for the Democrats to provide any sort of coherent opposition.
So, in the end, the electorate has decided to stick with the Republicans. Nonetheless, the country is still pretty evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. There is no mass conservative groundswell in this country, GOP leaders’ delusions notwithstanding. But at the same time, there is a great deal of respect for the way Bush handled September 11 and there is a willingness to give him the benefit of the doubt. This is the hurdle that the Democrats must overcome if they are to become a viable opposition party. To do this while not appearing unpatriotic or wishy-washy on national defense will be very tough indeed.