"Don't misunderestimate me," George W. Bush once famously (perhaps apocryphally) warned when he was running for president. It was a typical Bushism. We know what he meant, though, and the results of the mid-term elections in the United States mean that few would dare to misunderestimate the president's political skills now. He has confounded the pundits' confident predictions of tight results and recounts lasting for weeks, if not months. It was an unexpected triumph for Mr Bush.
Whatever view is taken of Mr Bush's policies, he has proved to be a formidable
campaigner. Fully capitalizing on the prestige of the office he holds, he exploited
the advantages of incumbency at a time of international tension. The President
was also skilful in concentrating on the important contests and sticking to a
few key themes: the war on terror, the threat from Saddam Hussein and his plans
for tax cuts. As a result, the Republicans have been rewarded with control of
Congress, a political advantage with which relatively few administrations have
been endowed. Mr Bush is only the third president in a century to make mid-term
gains, after Franklin Roosevelt in 1934 and Bill Clinton in 1998.
And how the Democrats must miss Mr Clinton. Theirs is a timid leaderless party that has lost its flair for campaigning. Its dependence on the charisma of one man, already apparent in the 2000 Gore campaign, is now painfully obvious. There were a few consolation prizes picked up in gubernatorial contests, but this was one bitter night for the party.
The symbolic defeats must be especially difficult to bear. Nothing came of the Democrats' pledge to avenge their 2000 presidential defeat by turning Jeb Bush, the President's brother, out of the governor's mansion in Florida. Almost as distressing must have been the elevation of Katherine Harris, the former Florida Secretary of State who was responsible for so many controversial decisions about dimpled chads, to the House of Representatives. And some prominent Democrat names went down. There was the defeat of Walter Mondale, the former Vice-President, in Minnesota, the surprising failure of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Bobby Kennedy's daughter, in Maryland, and the vanquishing of Erskine Bowles, President Clinton's chief of staff, by Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina.
But the Republicans' victories, sweet as they may be for them, are no cause
for wider celebration. Suddenly all sorts of measures that could have been blocked
in Congress can be pursued by the White House. As well as his tax cuts for the
wealthy, Mr Bush can hope to see his conservative slate of judges for the Supreme
Court approved and legislation to allow drilling for oil in Alaska's wildlife
refuge. He might try to relax business regulation, although in the light of Enron
and other scandals that remains problematic. And his so-called Homeland Security
program will continue to assault the civil liberties of American citizens.
Most dangerous of all, however, is what these elections mean for Mr Bush's
foreign policy. This can be overstated, because few Democrats would in any case
oppose the President at a time of war. But these results will undoubtedly embolden
Mr Bush as he pushes the United Nations towards backing his plans for a war on
Iraq. The incalculable damage that such a conflict would do to peace throughout
the world, rather than the tally of governorships and Congressional seats, represents
the true scale, and the real price, of the Democrats' failure.
© 2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd