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President Bush Made Tuesday's Results Possible

Thursday, 07 November 2002 12:00 AM

Credit for the stunning victory registered by Republicans on Tuesday really should go to President Bush.

President Bush was willing to put his political reputation on the line to do what was best for his party by campaigning hard for GOP candidates all across the country. That includes his five-day, 15-state blitz right before the election. GOP wins came in the key Senate contests in New Hampshire, Georgia, Minnesota and Missouri. All were states that had tight contests, credible GOP candidates, and had been on the receiving end of a visit by President Bush in the closing days.

One of the political acts of sin committed by the president's father when he held the presidency was his failure to expend political capital at a time when his poll numbers were high. In the case of the elder President Bush, it was a failure to use those high poll numbers to advance a strong domestic agenda that dashed his hopes for winning a second term.

In George W's case, it, too, would be a gamble to risk political capital in this election, but one that was worth taking. Fortunately, the sin of the father was not to be repeated by his son, because there was a huge payoff this time. Not since Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 has a Republican president been able to gain seats for his party in both the House and Senate in a midterm election.

Not only did the GOP maintain control of the House, but it also seized back control of the Senate. But a victory in an election is no end in itself, because the returning senators and representatives of the majority party will find themselves confronting significant challenges when they return to Washington.

Perhaps the most significant of those will not be any one policy matter per se, but the ability to manage the natural high expectations that both Republican and conservative partisans and the news media are likely to expect of the GOP majorities in the House and Senate.

The president and congressional leadership need to make it repeatedly clear to the public that there will be a limit to what can be accomplished, particularly in the Senate. Because 60 votes are needed for cloture in order to ensure a bill can reach the floor, the Democrats in the Senate still have a strong hand to play.

But they had better play it wisely because, if not, it will be easy to portray Minority Leader Tom Daschle and his band of Senate Democrats as liberal obstructionists.

Daschle has already appeared on the TV news proclaiming his intent to pursue the same objectives in the minority that the Senate Democrats did under his leadership when they were in the majority. Those objectives included blocked nominations of qualified nominees for federal judgeships and the bottling up of legislation passed by the House.

Daschle should keep in mind that many voters in exit polling were said to have cited dissatisfaction with gridlock.

An early test as to whether the Democrats will be willing to play fair will be the coming lame duck session of the Senate. Because Jim Talent, the winning GOP candidate in Missouri, has won a special election, he should be able to take his seat in the lame duck session unless the Democrats in Missouri find a way to throw a wrench into the certification of his election. This will throw Senate control back to the GOP.

Will the Democrats under Daschle be cooperative in relinquishing their power, allowing Republicans to start assuming control of committees in the lame duck session? Will they push partisanship aside and do what's best for the country when it comes to filling long-vacant federal judgeships and allowing other legislation passed by the House to go forward?

An important factor will also be the willingness of current GOP Majority Leader Trent Lott to push the Democrats for a quick, orderly transfer of power once Talent arrives in Washington. After all, the people spoke on Tuesday and handed control back to the GOP. But Lott is not known for being a savvy dealmaker in negotiating with Democrats. Let's hope that is not the case this time.

The role of the small band of centrist Democrats, most prominently Zell Miller, D-Ga., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb., should be heightened in a Senate in which the GOP has the majority. It's not generally known, but Daschle curbed the activity of most committees in the Senate to rein in these centrist Democrats from joining with Republicans to send legislation he and more liberal members of his caucus did not favor.

In terms of Senate contests, Wayne Allard, D-Colo., prevailed in his fight to keep the Senate seat once held by my mentor, Gordon Allott (R), who brought me to Washington after the 1966 election. The pundits had pegged challenger Ted Strickland as a likely upset victor. But Allard is a down-to-earth guy, and at least 52 percent of Colorado voters as of Wednesday morning appreciated that quality. And U.S. Rep. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., came on strong during the last week to overtake Sen. Max Cleland (D) in an upset that few would have predicted even three weeks ago.

Jim Talent has distinguished himself in the House as a thoughtful, knowledgeable legislator, and Missourians handed him a victory. Sen. Jean Carnahan, whom Talent defeated, took her seat after the dubious machinations to have her become a stand-in candidate for her husband, Gov. Mel Carnahan, after his death in an airplane crash.

But Sen. Carnahan proved that she had some things to learn about realpolitik, and many voters were skeptical that she had mastered the legislative process. The results suggest she did not erase the skepticism held by many voters.

The GOP's win in Minnesota was a real stunner. Conventional wisdom held that after Sen. Paul Wellstone's death, former vice president and U.S. senator Walter Mondale would be to Democratic hopes in Minnesota what Frank Lautenberg was to the party's hopes in New Jersey.

Lautenberg, ex-senator from the Garden State, managed to win thanks to a court ruling that ignored New Jersey law and allowed him to replace Sen. Bob Torricelli as the Democratic candidate, a decision that ended up keeping the seat in the D column. Lautenberg had the name recognition and experience that proved reassuring to many New Jersey voters.

It was a good idea on the part of Democrats in New Jersey and one worth trying in Minnesota too. But the former vice president was not helped by the excessive partisanship displayed by Democrats at the memorial service for Sen. Wellstone, which even Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said had backfired.

Right before he died, Wellstone was doing well in the polls, but Coleman had proven himself to be a strong contender for a Republican in Minnesota with its long tradition of liberalism. He comes across as a reasonable conservative and that proved a good enough fit for Minnesota voters.

The results in Louisiana were also surprising. Sen. Mary Landrieu is in a runoff, having fallen short of the majority mark in a field that featured a jambalaya of GOP aspirants. That must not be welcome news for Democrats and, if conservatives can unite behind State Elections Commissioner Suzanne Terrell, then all bets are off.

South Dakota voters handed Tom Daschle a victory by apparently re-electing his Senate mate, liberal Democrat Tim Johnson, over Rep. John Thune, whose campaign was a model effort for how a ground campaign should be conducted. That the race was so close and there are mutterings about questionable tactics employed to register voters on the part of the Democrats only makes this loss disappointing to conservatives, though Daschle partisans have good reason to rejoice.

The continued Republican majority in the House was less of a surprise, but there will be leadership changes as House Majority Leader Richard Armey (R) retires. Tom DeLay, the whip, is interested in moving up the ladder and Roy Blunt, his chief deputy, wants to take his post. But I cannot say enough about the leadership of Speaker Dennis Hastert, who is quiet but efficient and effective in moving legislation favored by the administration and often conservatives too.

No victory pleased me more than Republican Sonny Perdue's upset of Gov. Roy Barnes (D) in Georgia. No one saw it coming, but Perdue ran a race in which he ignored the skeptics. He's an old friend and one who had helped the late Paul Coverdell win his Senate seat. He becomes the first Republican governor in Georgia since 1872. Georgia has finally caught up with the times because even Deep South states like Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas had elected GOP governors in recent decades.

There were Democrat wins of long-held GOP governorships in such politically pivotal states as Michigan (12 years), Wisconsin (16 years), Illinois (26 years), and Pennsylvania (8 years). But the GOP held the must-win state of Florida where Jeb Bush, a First Brother, holds the governor's chair and in George W.'s home state of Texas.

Wins by Robert Ehrlich in Maryland and Mitt Romney in Massachusetts are no victories for movement conservatives, but Ehrlich is better on guns and Romney better on English immersion for immigrant school children than either of the liberals that they defeated.

Democrats cannot take much comfort in their surge in governorships. Support of governors may help in some presidential nomination contests, but no presidential candidate should view a state to be guaranteed just because his party holds the governorship. GOP control of governorships in Wisconsin and Michigan did not ensure victory for President Bush in the 2000 election.

The loss of Bill Simon in California was disappointing to conservatives who had hoped the many troubles of Gov. Gray Davis would put a Republican in the governor's chair. But the nation's largest state remains in the hands of the Democrats. As a first-time candidate, Simon did not run a perfect campaign in a state whose daunting size, population and economy make it seem a nation onto itself.

But Simon is a thoughtful conservative and I think he will be able to find positive ways to make constructive use of this experience in the future for the conservative cause and California.

Someone else deserves real credit in this election too: the volunteer, who has been the political world's equivalent of the "forgotten man" in recent decades. Both the Republicans and Democrats placed unprecedented effort on the ground game in this election. Democratic congressional campaign strategists upped their budget after watching the effectiveness of the Gore campaign and organized labor in mobilizing voters in the 2000 presidential race.

But Bush White House strategist Karl Rove and Political Affairs Director Ken Mehlman also deserve credit for being smart enough to realize that there are limits to what television advertising can accomplish in an election. The trench warfare of politics – door knocking, literature drops, phone calls from neighbors – is important too, just not recognized enough in today's advertising-driven politics.

After years of watching the resistance to grassroots campaigning exhibited by many of the strategists in both parties, but particularly the Republicans, it's good to know the candidates and parties want their campaigns to do more talking to voters in person rather than talking at them through paid commercials.

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

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Credit for the stunning victory registered by Republicans on Tuesday really should go to President Bush. President Bush was willing to put his political reputation on the line to do what was best for his party by campaigning hard for GOP candidates all across the...
Thursday, 07 November 2002 12:00 AM
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