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Elections have consequences

By W. James Antle III
web posted November 4, 2002

This is being written as the 2002 campaign is coming to its close, yet there is still a great deal of political suspense in the air. Which party will control the House of Representatives? The Senate? What about those gubernatorial races? What will it all mean for 2004?

Midterm elections are always seen as sort of a referendum on the sitting president. President George W. Bush is still fairly popular, with job approval ratings in the 65 per cent range, and most Americans seem to respect him as a wartime leader. But there are deep concerns about the economy and whether the Bush administration, with its concentration on Iraq, is properly focused on it. Thus far, Bush's popularity has demonstrated a limited "coat tail" effect on his fellow Republicans. Yet there doesn't seem to be a sense that the Democrats are providing much of an alternative to the status quo, so the races remain very tight.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Frank Lautenberg, right,and his Republican opponent Douglas Forrester shake hands following their debate at News12 New Jersey in Edison, N.J. on October 30
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Frank Lautenberg, right,and his Republican opponent Douglas Forrester shake hands following their debate at News12 New Jersey in Edison, N.J. on October 30

We have seen a sitting senator drop his reelection bid with just 36 days to go before Election Day as scandals contributed to his deepening unpopularity. With the New Jersey supreme court's blessing, the Democrats pulled a septuagenarian ex-senator out of retirement to run in his place and faster than you can say "Lautenberg," moved the seat from a probable Republican pickup to the likely Democratic column. In Montana, the Republican candidate dropped out, was at the center of a controversy over whether incumbent Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) and the Democrats were involved in gay baiting, and has since reentered the race. Tragically, Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) was killed in a plane crash while in a closely watched race with Republican former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman. A former vice president from the administration of a recent Nobel laureate and the crushingly unsuccessful 1984 Democratic presidential standard-bearer now stands in Wellstone's place.

The governor's races have also been interesting. The Democrats are leading in states long governed by Republicans, such as Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin, but Republicans may prevail in such Democratic strongholds as Hawaii and Maryland. Republican Mitt Romney and Democratic state treasurer Shannon O'Brien are neck-and-neck in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts Republican gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney with lieutenant governor running mate Kerry Healey, at his side, addresses supporters at a rally at City Hall Plaza in Fall River, Mass. on November 1
Massachusetts Republican gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney with lieutenant governor running mate Kerry Healey, at his side, addresses supporters at a rally at City Hall Plaza in Fall River, Mass. on November 1

One of the most irritating aspects of election campaigns is that they tend to focus on the irrelevant. Barring substantial evidence of corruption or professional incompetence, or repeated examples of character flaws incompatible with honest public service, I would rather hear advertisements debating policy positions than who was involved in crummier business deals or was meaner to the other kids in third grade. I was solidly pro-impeachment, but my criticism of even Bill Clinton (who in my view did exhibit the sort of character flaws I alluded to above) almost always dealt with his policies for this reason. I'm not an opponent of negative advertising, but when commercials degenerate into competing finger-pointing accounts of things that don't have a whole lot to do with what the candidates will be doing once they are in office, I can understand why they cause voters to tune out.

The prominence of polling and focus groups in campaigns has also led to the proliferation of cookie-cutter centrist candidates of both parties (and, in fairness, liberals and conservatives who feel that political survival requires them to masquerade as such). A large number of Democrats and Republicans take nearly identical positions on issues that are controversial and avoid those likely to provoke particularly hostile press coverage, talking instead about who can bring home the most bacon. Many Republicans distinguish themselves solely by promoting the most miniscule tax cuts imaginable, which their Democratic opponents in turn savage as hugely irresponsible and detrimental to the entire federal budget while earnestly pretending they would never vote to actually raise taxes.

George Wallace famously said there wasn't a "dime's worth of difference" between the two major parties; more recently, Pat Buchanan said they were the two wings "of the same bird of prey." Blogger Patrick Ruffini has called this cycle the "Seinfeld election," in that there is no major national theme to this year's races – an election about nothing. So why bother voting?

Walter Mondale speaks to supporters gathered near Moorhead, Minn. on November 3
Walter Mondale speaks to supporters gathered near Moorhead, Minn. on November 3

Cynics overstate the degree of similarity between the two parties. With a few notable exceptions, the Democrats have largely been incoherent about Iraq and many important foreign policy issues. Domestically, they have touted income redistribution and government growth as the key to economic growth. It is no coincidence that so many of them now hail Walter Mondale, the veteran of the Carter-era malaise who promised to raise taxes during his losing presidential campaign, as a political savior.

This election will determine whether critical judicial vacancies are filled, or whether nominees will be blocked in accordance with rigid ideological litmus tests disqualifying anyone discernibly to the right of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It will determine whether the unfortunately delayed pro-growth aspects of the Bush tax cut will ever be phased in, or whether taxes should begin to rise again. It will determine whether largely successful welfare reforms will be preserved or whether this progress will be erased.

There are also of course individual Republicans who are very deserving. Gov. Bill Owens is a stalwart tax-cutter with an uncommon devotion to fiscal responsibility. Rep. Steve Largent will be a solid pro-family voice as Oklahoma governor. Rep. Ron Paul is an indefatigable constitutionalist in a city where politicians too frequently ignore the Constitution while paying homage to it as a "living document."

Conservatives have long understood that gridlock is not always a bad thing. It can prevent the adoption of unwise programs and slow the expansion of government. But with some aspects of our agenda, such as pro-growth tax cuts and investment in national defense, requiring positive action and with Bush in the White House, gridlock can also be detrimental.

With both parties so evenly matched, races that might not ordinarily matter take on accentuated importance. There is a percentage of the candidates who are running who will do many good things if elected and another percentage who will pursue imprudent policies if they are not defeated. Only a fraction of that minority of eligible voters who will turn out to the polls will determine the result. Such a smaller number could end up making a very big difference. esr

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.

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