There are two ways of interpreting the midterm elections held in the United States on Tuesday, both of them valid. On the one hand, the Republicans did very well — perhaps not better then expected, since they held the advantage going in, but certainly much better than the Democrats had hoped they would do. They now control both Houses of Congress and the White House. On the other hand, America remains a house evenly divided. When a couple of seats here can deliver the Senate, and a few electoral votes there can put a man in the White House, it is not much of a mandate for whoever “wins.”

Tuesday’s results did not change this underlying fact of recent U.S. politics. The clash between these competing perceptions of the 2002 elections will continue to affect the behavior of President George W. Bush’s administration, the American public’s reaction and, inevitably, the rest of the world for the next two years.

Politics is about numbers and symbols, and in both respects the Republicans came out ahead. The math speaks for itself. The GOP increased its majority in the House of Representatives and regained the Senate, bucking a midterm-election trend favoring the party that did not hold the White House. The Senate victory, in particular, may help the administration in coming battles over economic issues and Social Security.

The Republicans did not do so well by the numbers in gubernatorial races, where the party faces a probable drop in its majority, but they won the two that counted the most symbolically. In Florida, the Democrats failed to oust President Bush’s brother, a party priority since the electoral fiasco there two years ago, and in Maryland the Republican candidate knocked out a famous Democratic name, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Bobby Kennedy’s eldest daughter.

The Florida race, especially, could not help but be seen as a local, surrogate referendum on the current presidency. The president prevailed, resoundingly. In fact, despite not being on the ballot, Mr. Bush was the symbolic winner nationwide on Tuesday. He campaigned so intensively, in so many races, that he put his credibility as a leader publicly on the line. By and large, his favored candidates won.

It is, of course, possible to read too much into this. Elections are generally won or lost on local issues — jobs, education, taxes, public transportation, health care — and on the vagaries of personality. The people who preferred Mr. Bob Ehrlich to Ms. Townsend in Maryland or who helped Mr. Norm Coleman defeat former Ambassador to Japan Walter Mondale in Minnesota’s Senate race were probably not expressing their views on Mr. Bush’s hardball foreign policy. Yet they didn’t use their votes to reject it, either, which means that the president is now in a position to claim — as he almost certainly will — a renewed mandate for his proposed war on Iraq and other expressions of unilateralism.

It is this aspect of the elections that is of concern to America’s friends and allies. What the world was perhaps looking for was a stronger expression of skepticism, hesitation, prudence — call it what you will — about the image America has increasingly projected abroad in the 14 months since Sept. 11, 2001.

Outside observers had hoped the elections might help focus domestic demand for clearer answers to the questions that have been mounting up: Where is the so-called war on terrorism headed? Has it changed course? If so, why? Is the U.S. still committed to Afghanistan? What prompted the recent emphasis on “regime change” in Iraq? What about North Korea, a major concern of Japan’s? And what are the implications of the administration’s new, go-it-alone National Security Strategy? None of this figured significantly into pre-election debate.

There are two possible explanations. Americans may not in fact entertain serious doubts about the course their president is pursuing abroad, a conclusion the election results seem to support. If the idea of invading Iraq, for example, was an issue at all, it certainly didn’t hurt the president’s party. Recent polls, however, can be read both ways: A majority of Americans say they support an invasion under certain circumstances; yet the number is gradually dropping. More likely, Americans may just not take this “war talk” seriously — not yet, anyway, or not in large numbers. That could change at a stroke.

And that is where the divided house is important. So far, Democrats have not noticeably challenged Mr. Bush’s conduct of foreign policy, but when, not if, opposition galvanizes, it is reassuring to know that there are still enough of them there — in the House and the Senate — to apply the brakes as needed.

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