HONOLULU — U.S. President George W. Bush is basking in the results of last week’s midterm elections. Bush’s Republican Party increased its presence in Congress, an outcome that the president claims validates his policies and provides him with a mandate for the remaining two years of his term. Fears that the results herald a shift in U.S. policy are overblown.
While the president’s domestic agenda may get a boost, there will be far more continuity than change in foreign policy. The U.S. is still too divided — or to put it another way, the center is too strong — to countenance radical change. Today the president and his party must worry that they have lost a scapegoat. If things don’t go well, there is no one else to blame.
Traditionally, the president’s party loses seats in Congress during a midterm election. This year the GOP reclaimed control of the Senate by winning two seats and expanded its majority in the House of Representatives. Now Bush and his predecessor, Bill Clinton, share the distinction of being the only presidents since 1934 whose party increased its number of seats in Congress after midterm ballots.
The problem is that majorities don’t mean much when they’re this thin. The U.S. public is split right down the middle. The margin of victory in the two key Senate campaigns was a mere 22,000 votes, less than 2 percent of the combined votes in those two races. A president with a modicum of popularity should have been able to swing that many votes, and Bush campaigned heavily in those states.
Moreover, the rules of the Senate require real majorities. It takes 60 votes to stop a filibuster, so a determined senator could hold up business unless the Republicans get Democrats to cross the aisle. In other words, compromise is going to be as important as before.
One may assert that Bush took office with an even more flimsy mandate — since he lost the popular vote — but he still acted like he won by a landslide. His heavy-handed tactics, though, alienated Democrats and, more importantly, Vermont Sen. James Jeffords, whose party switch turned control of the Senate over to the Democrats.
The impact of the GOP resurgence is most likely to be felt in domestic politics. The president’s judicial nominees will receive a more sympathetic hearing and a straight party vote should get them on the bench. That could yield a more conservative judiciary over time, and could even encourage a Supreme Court justice or two to retire. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is said to have held off retirement so that a Democratic president wouldn’t pick her replacement.
The GOP majority may also help Bush get his economic package through Congress. Usually business favors a divided government, since it prevents the imposition of new rules and regulations. This time, however, the GOP’s uninhibited probusiness sentiment has eliminated such reservations. The resignation of Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Harvey Pitt should signal Republicans that the party can’t afford to be too accommodating toward business these days. The GOP will pay heavily in 2004 if voters enter booths thinking the party sidled up to executives at the expense of ordinary workers.
Foreign policy is unlikely to be affected by the election. The president has had the upper hand since Sept. 11 and Democrats have been forced to respond to his agenda — when they haven’t accommodated him outright. The most important force in recent U.S. foreign policy debates hasn’t been Democrats, but moderates within the GOP itself.
In that vein, the most important outcome of this vote is a man who wasn’t there: North Carolina’s retiring Republican Sen. Jesse Helms. Helms had been one of the stubborn and obstinate forces in U.S. foreign policy. He decided to resign this year, and will not be resuming duty as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when the GOP takes control. Instead, the chairmanship will go to Richard Lugar, one of the most respected foreign policy experts in Congress.
On the issue of North Korea, moderates used to argue (among other things) that a hard line against Pyongyang would not be acceptable to a Democratic Senate. Now that argument loses force, and conservatives in the Congress might be able to increase their influence over a clearly divided administration. Fortunately, allies and other concerned governments should be able to counterbalance those hot heads.
Balance is vital. Gridlock can work to the advantage of the president since he sets the agenda. But with control of the White House and both Houses of Congress, the GOP now has responsibility and accountability. The risk is that if things go wrong — if the economy doesn’t recover, the war on terrorism stalls, or more pensions vanish into the ether, to name just three very real possibilities — the president and his party won’t have anyone else to blame.
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