WASHINGTON - Less than four weeks before the Nov. 7 mid-term elections, most political professionals from both major parties believe the Democrats not only will end the 12-year Republican reign in the House of Representatives, but also have a roughly even chance of taking back the Senate which they lost in 2002.
The stakes for the administration of President George W. Bush are high: even if only the lower house falls to the Democrats, they will have the ability not only to stymie his legislative agenda, but they are virtually certain to launch high-profile and potentially very damaging investigations of the administration's performance, including allegations of corruption and gross incompetence, from Iraq to Hurricane Katrina.
Until now, the Republican leadership in both houses has protected the administration from that kind of scrutiny.
"If Bush loses Congress, he is likely to be the lamest duck in memory," one veteran Capitol Hill staffer told IPS. "Unless he shows that he's capable of reaching out to the other side -- to be a 'uniter', not a 'divider', as he used to say, he's going to be a permanent defensive crouch for the last two years of his presidency."
Dragged down by growing public frustration with the Iraq war, persistent and widespread disapproval of Bush's performance, and a series of scandals, including one involving a Florida congressman who carried on sexually graphic online conversations with boys who worked as House pages, Republicans could lose as many as 40 seats that they currently hold in the House.
While a sweep by Democrats of all 40 in the 435-seat chamber is still considered unlikely, a net pick-up of 30, which most analysts believe is well within the realm of possibility, would give them a comfortable 15-seat majority and thus chairmanships of all House committees.
A National Journal survey released Friday of 150 political pros equally divided between Republicans and Democrats rated the chances of a Democratic takeover of the House at nearly 75 percent.
The chances of the Democrats gaining a 51-seat majority in the Senate are somewhat less, given that only 15 currently Republican seats in the upper chamber's 100 seats are up for election. But the Journal's political pros, who gave the Democrats at most a one-in-three chance of picking up the six seats they need to win control just three months ago, now say the chances have risen to about one in two.
Even if the Democrats fall one or two Senate seats short, there are already a sufficient number of relatively moderate Republican senators who have given notice that their patience for backing Bush on any number of foreign policy measures, especially the notion that the U.S. should "stay the course" in Iraq, has run out.
Polling since the beginning of this month has shown that Bush's public approval rating has fallen back toward his historic lows after a brief recovery in mid-September when he took advantage of the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon to give a series of high-profile speeches.
Thus, while as much as 45 percent of respondents told a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll in mid-September that they approved of his performance, compared to 52 percent who said they did not, that seven-point gap has since widened considerably, according to a number of subsequent surveys.
Last week, for example, two polls, by Newsweek and CBS/New York Times, found a record 26-point gap, with approval of Bush falling as low as 33 percent, close to his all-time low.
Other recent polls have shown a wide gap in favour of Democrats when respondents were asked what party they would prefer to represent them in Congress.
In one USA Today/Gallup poll conducted last weekend, for example, 58 percent of respondents said they preferred a generic Democrat, compared to 36 percent who said they would vote for a Republican.
While that result was particularly dramatic, others taken in the past 10 days have consistently shown Democrats leading by a 13-16 percent margin -- comparable to voters' preference for Republicans before the historic landslide 1994 mid-term elections that gave them control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years.
Of course, most voters do not cast their ballots for "generic" candidates, but rather for incumbents who are well known in their constituencies.
Because of the advantages enjoyed by incumbents, as well as "gerrymandering" -- the carving out, usually by state governments, of legislative districts designed to assure strong majorities by one party or the other -- only about 10 percent of the 435 House seats that will be voted on Nov. 7 are considered competitive. Virtually all of those seats, however, are currently held by Republicans.
According to the polls, voters currently believe that Democrats would do a substantially better job than Republicans on virtually every major issue posed by the pollsters, including, most remarkably, the two on which Bush and the Republicans have long been preferred: the "war on terrorism" and maintaining "moral standards."
Thus, a Washington Post poll found over the weekend that 47 percent of respondents thought Democrats could do better against terrorism, compared to 41 percent who preferred Republicans. A Newsweek poll found an even wider 44-37 percent gap on the issue -- a major reversal from polling results as recently as August.
Even more remarkable was a USA Today/Gallup poll that found that 36-34 percent gap in favour of Democrats among respondents who were asked which party in Congress was better able to uphold the country's "moral standards" -- a result that was no doubt prompted by the now-infamous scandal involving Florida Republican Mark Foley, who resigned abruptly last week after text messages he had sent to under-age Congressional pages were posted on the Internet.
The fact that the House Republican leadership had been given some warning about Foley's "inappropriate" communications as long ago as 2000 -- and that he had served as the chairman, with the leadership's blessing, of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children -- has been a major news story for much of the past week.
In many ways, the timing of the scandal could not have been worse, given the Republicans' reliance on turning out their core Christian fundamentalist constituency on election day. "I was bullish before the Foley story broke," one Democratic pro told the National Journal this week. "And now I'm getting near irrational exuberance."
If the Republican handling of the scandal was not enough to depress turnout by the Christian Right, however, much of Washington is eagerly awaiting next week's release of a book by David Kuo, who worked as Bush's special assistant on faith-based issues for the first five years of his presidency.
The book "Tempting Faith" reportedly accuses Bush's top political aide, Karl Rove, and other White House officials of regularly referring to evangelicals as "boorish", "nuts", "ridiculous", "out of control", and "just plain goofy" and of "cynically hijacking" the faith-based movement to serve the administration's political ends.
© Copyright 2006 IPS - Inter Press Service