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Give President Bush credit for putting his popularity to work

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted November 4, 2002

Regardless of the outcome Tuesday, I admire President George W. Bush for what he did to try to elect a Senate that will be favorable to his programs. Virtually every measure the President proposed, the House passed and the Senate buried. And, of course, there are the very well qualified Court of Appeals nominees that have either been defeated in the Judiciary Committee or have died for lack of even a hearing.

Bush speaks at a campaign rally for Republican Senate candidate Saxby Chambliss in Atlanta, Georgia on November 2
Bush speaks at a campaign rally for Republican Senate candidate Saxby Chambliss in Atlanta, Georgia on November 2

The President had some political capital on account of his high approval ratings. He used it. In the process his approval ratings dropped ten per cent. Still, he plowed ahead, making fifteen stops in the last five days, hoping to produce what political commentator Rich Galen has called "the Bush bounce." In very close races the appearance of the president at the end of the campaign can generate enough coverage that it can put a Senate candidate over the top.

As John Maxwell, the political consultant who is a protégé of the remarkably successful Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA.), will affirm, six years ago, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), was re-elected because of the Clinton bounce on the last weekend before the election. Harkin, a far-left colleague of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, was being challenged by Congressman Jim Ross Lightfoot (R). Tracking polls showed that Lightfoot had opened up a small but consistent lead over Harkin. President Bill Clinton, although he too was seeking re-election that year, came to Iowa on the Saturday before the election. He called Harkin a "national treasure." That phrase ran over and over again all weekend. Efforts by Lightfoot to get some coverage at the end failed. The tracking went from a Lightfoot lead to a Harkin lead overnight, and, indeed, Harkin was re-elected with 52 percent of the vote.

Clinton at that point had capital. He chose to use it to help the likes of Harkin.

I was one who pleaded with the Nixon camp to use the president's capital in 1972 to help struggling Senators. The Senator who brought me to Washington after his 1966 re-election, Gordon Allott (R-CO), was locked in a tight contest with state Rep. Floyd Haskell, who had switched parties over President Richard Nixon's bombing of Cambodia. Nixon was heading for a nationwide sweep. We pleaded for Nixon to make a single stop in Colorado as he headed to San Clemente to await the results of the election. The Nixon crowd, arrogant to the end, refused. Allott was defeated in the closest Senate election in Colorado history.

Likewise, one of the nicest Senators ever to have served in that body in modern times, Sen. Caleb Boggs (R-Del.) found himself unexpectedly locked in a tight race with an upstart politician named Joe Biden (D). Would Nixon stop by nearby Delaware to embrace Boggs? No, he refused. Those who know Delaware told me a Nixon visit would have made the difference.

When Nixon was about to be impeached, Allott and Boggs might well have been there for him if he had been there for them. He had capital and declined to use it.

President Ronald Reagan, running against Walter Mondale in 1984, carried every state except Minnesota. Mondale also carried the District of Columbia. A number of candidates locked in close races pleaded with the Reagan political team to have the president campaign for them. A blessing from the enormously popular Reagan would have meant the difference between victory and defeat. Reagan declined. The result was a net loss of two Senate seats in that incredible landslide and only 14 House seats were gained. Lyndon Johnson won almost as sweeping a landslide in 1964. The difference was that Johnson swept Democratic Senators and Congressmen into office with him. Johnson had capital and used it. Reagan had capital and hoarded it.

In 1986, a switch of fewer than 40,000 votes would have kept the Senate in GOP hands. Reagan was still enormously popular. It was before the disclosure of Iran Contra. A Reagan appearance in Alabama, Georgia, or North Dakota just to name a few would have kept those Senators in the Republican column. No sale. And because of his refusal to spend political capital, Reagan suffered with a mean and nasty Senate during his last two years in office.

If the polls are correct, Bush's bet might not pay off. It appears that Democrats will keep their majority status because of last minute candidate switches in New Jersey and Minnesota.

Even knowing this, he pushed on. I give him credit. Even the status quo would be a victory for Bush as the president's party usually loses significantly in Congress. Only three times since the Civil War has the president's party not lost seats in Congress in mid-term elections.

Whether or not Bush bucks history, his effort is to be admired. Bush had capital. He has spent a lot of it. He knows if he loses, he will pay for it big time over the next two years. Regardless, he will be better off than had he hoarded his popularity while watching his party go down in flames in the 2002 elections. Nixon and Reagan both took care of themselves first. They cared little about the party. They paid dearly for that decision. Bush, I believe, will fare better just because he put the good of the country ahead of his own personal popularity. For that, he has generated lots of loyalty.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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