Washington — This mid-term election is about atmosphere. It is about how the voters feel. Objective considerations have been fading from electoral politics for a long time. Precisely why that is I cannot say in my allotted 800 or so words here, but atmosphere transcends objective considerations nowadays in politics. This might be because today’s politicians are better seducers than in the past. Whatever the reason, politicians now play more to voters’ “feelings” than to their objective conditions.
In the 1992 presidential race the political wizard of the hour played upon the voters’ feeling that the economy was in a dreadful state, though it had already emerged from a mild and brief recession. He played on the voters’ yearning for “change” and invoked the term metronomically like a preacher at a country revival. Objective conditions did not matter. He won, beating a far more distinguished public servant and replacing good government, prosperity and peace with what has come to be known as the Clinton Scandals.
So it is today. Atmosphere matters more than objective conditions. Thus the party leaders’ optimism waxes and wanes, for over the past few months the country’s mood has been changeable. A few weeks back the Republicans anticipated winning both houses of Congress on November 5. Then the Democrats were in a state of frustrated confusion. Now both parties are pessimistic. It all has to do with the mood of the country, and the party leaders are uncertain as to that mood.
Historically speaking, the Democrats should be buoyant. The Republicans should be in mulligrubs. Owing to the presence of a Republican in the White House, this mid-term election ought to be in the bag for the Democrats. They should be confident of picking up a seat or two in the Senate and enough in the House to grain control of it — they need to pick up just six seats. In the last century, on only three occasions has the President’s party gained congressional seats during his first mid-term election. Yet the Democrats and the Republicans are both in doubt of their chances. The Washington Prowler, my favorite political source who reports regularly online at theamericanprowler.org, says Republican Senate staffers are not expecting to move up into the leadership and some are expecting to see themselves and their bosses unemployed. The Democrats are bluer still, feeling frustrated that they have not presented a resonant national message to the electorate.
The real reason they will not take the House and may lose the Senate is, as I say, “atmospherics.” The Democrats’ inability to make the economy an issue reflects the essential good sense of the American electorate. The economy is not as bad as Democrats have claimed. Despite the costs of September 11, the corporate corruption (which is clearly not the Republicans’ doing) and the burden on the federal budget of gearing up for war, the economy has done okay. It has not gone into recession and is in fact growing, probably at better than 4% in the last quarter. Thus the Democrats’ hope of a return to a 1992 yearning for “change” has not been reprised.
The atmospherics are not working for the Democrats. They are working for the Republicans. That is because the threat against America posed by September 11 and the administration’s focus on Iraq’s potential for mass destruction have provoked an instinct fundamental to Americans: the instinct for vigilance. Americans feel the first order of business is to protect the nation and that means they will stand by the President and his party. They will return a Republican majority in the House and may by one vote tip the balance towards the Republicans in the Senate.
The Washington sniper’s brutality has heightened the American instinct for vigilance. Voters want action taken. This too favors the President’s party. The Senate will be decided in Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Texas. With the exception perhaps of Minnesota, all of those states are states where the instinct for vigilance is high. Right now the polls suggests a wash, with Republicans and Democrats returning to the Senate in the same numbers as in the last Senate, though with different states. My hunch is that enough seats will actually go to the Republicans to give them a one-seat majority in the Senate. The reason is American concern for security. It all depends on the atmospherics, and I say the mood will favor the Republicans with majorities in both houses.