A Big Night for Bush

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Bush campaigned hard for Saxby Chambliss, and it paid off with a Georgia Senate seat

It was nothing short of astonishing. By early Wednesday morning it was clear that George W. Bush's relentless campaigning had paid off big time for his party. The Republicans had taken control of the Senate with a stunning upset in Georgia and solid victories in New Hampshire, Georgia and Colorado. The final nail came at 2 a.m. ET, when a bewildered Jean Carnahan conceded that she had lost her Senate seat to Jim Talent in Missouri. The Democrats faired so poorly yesterday that even the irrepressible Democratic analyst James Carville placed a wastebasket over his head during the evening's broadcast on CNN.

The Republicans put on a dazzling display. George W. Bush hustled money like Bill Clinton, nationalized the election around his agenda like Newt Gingrich, and put it all on the line like a Vegas gambler. Consider his decision to aggressively intervene in GOP primaries: a few months ago, it seemed arrogant at best, foolhardy at worst. Last night, the White House?s handpicked candidates, John Sununu in New Hampshire and Saxby Chambliss in Georgia, won tight Senate races. Norm Coleman, also a White House pick, will probably prevail in Minnesota. The decision to back an alternative GOP candidate in Louisiana?s Senate race has thrown that contest into a runoff that Democrats could easily lose.

It was a gamble for Bush to tour the country on Air Force One for the last 10 days before the midterm elections and risk his prestige on shaky races. But it paid off with the trifecta of American politics: control of the White House, Senate and House. The clich of the midterms, repeated again and again: this is a divided country. And it still is. But it's less divided today than it was Tuesday morning. And the Congress now looks like "Bush's Congress" — a hospitable place for the President to push through his initiatives on tax policy, federal judges and an aggressive War on Terrorism.

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"The credit goes to the President, the brand he set for the party, people's personal comfort with him," Mitch Bainwol, point man for the National Republican Senatorial Committee boasted. "Daschle made a mistake with his strategy of obstruction." Bainwol also saw the seeds of GOP victory in two seemingly small acts, the partisan Wellstone memorial and Michigan Democratic Rep. David Bonior's September visit to Baghdad. "People thought: 'That's a Democrat and that's not me,'" Bainwol said.

Where the Democrats Went Wrong

What happened to all of those issues that Democrats were supposed to ride to victory? When it comes to the economy, Americans need no convincing that things are bad; but the issue was never put forth cogently by the Democrats, and the public remained unconvinced that the weak economy was Bush's fault. In Democratic focus groups, many voters blamed 9/11, rather than any Bush policies, for the faltering economy. And with so many Senate Democrats having supported the Bush tax cuts, Democrats were essentially stripped of a national message. They had no economic alternative to present. On the issues that they thought were magic bullets — prescription drugs and Social Security privatization — the GOP fought them to a draw, thanks in large measure to huge infusions of cash from the pharmaceutical industry. Republicans also successfully distanced themselves from the President's plan to allow Americans to invest part of their Social Security monies in the capital markets. Both parties engaged in cross-dressing, but the GOP was better at it. The soulless Democrats, who passed Bush's tax cut and his war resolution, never clearly staked out their positions and looked far weaker than the Republicans who were soft on Democrats' issues.

Politics is also about seizing opportunities and Democrats blew them at every turn. Five GOP Senate seats opened up this year — South Carolina, Texas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and New Hampshire — and Democrats couldn?t pick up one of them. The national media heaped attention on Ron Kirk, the black former mayor of Dallas who was supposed to be break down barriers with his bid for a Senate seat. He was stomped Tuesday night, as was Tony Sanchez, the state's Democratic gubernatorial candidate, who dropped $75 million of his own dough on his bid. For years, Democrats have waited for the Hispanic vote to rescue them. Instead, they were treated to the humiliation of Jeb Bush setting GOP records in Florida for picking up the Hispanic vote, not only of reliably conservative Cubans but of central Americans, Puerto Ricans and others. The much-touted Bill McBride picked up just over 40 percent of the vote. Janet Reno probably would have gotten about the same had the former attorney general been the Democratic nominee. In Georgia, Saxby Chambliss, who made national defense a centerpiece of his campaign, took the Democratic Senate seat held by Max Cleland, and before him, Sam Nunn, and before him the legendary Richard Russell. Cleland lost three limbs in Vietnam and voted for Bush's Iraq war resolution. But his opposition to the GOP version of Homeland Defense was turned into a deadly sin.

In the House of Representatives, the story was the same. Key races that Democrats had painstakingly targeted for two years fell by the wayside. Consider New Jersey?s 5th district: the leafy Bergen County district, home of retiring GOP moderate Marge Roukema, seemed ripe for a Democratic pickup. A hard-line conservative won the Republican nomination; the Democratic nominee was a moderate former Republican. Even there, the GOP managed to hold on to the seat.

Now What?

Will Rogers once said that when Democrats form a firing squad they do it in a circle. Last night's Democratic collapse is sure to fuel infighting in the party, focused on one question: if bids by moderate candidates like New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen, Cleland and Colorado's Tom Strickland collapsed, should the party move to the left and be unabashedly populist? Or would that further isolate the party from the voters?

Still, Republicans would be wrong to misread the lessons of Tuesday night. In 1994, Newt Gingrich overestimated his mandate and the turmoil of the last night's governors' races should give the GOP caution. There's still a great deal of anger out there — vented chiefly on the nation's incumbent governors, many of whom lost amid voter discontent about coming state budget crunches. The psychiatrists call that kind of anger free-floating rage, and it could end up blowing back against the GOP in 2004. If trends hold up, the party out of power took every open gubernatorial seat. The GOP picked up governorships in Vermont, South Carolina, Maryland, and Minnesota and in Georgia for the first time since Reconstruction. Democrats pick up governorships in Michigan, Illinois, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Maine and even Kansas. In Michigan, Democrat Jennifer Granholm captured close to 60 percent of the vote. A Harvard Law grad and former beauty queen she was one of the few Democratic moments of pride. Pundits quickly predicted she?d be the Democrats hot candidate for the vice presidential slot in ?04. Not so. Born in Canada she?s forbidden from running on a national ticket. Even when Democrats won, they lost.

Still, it will be hard for Republicans not to get cocky after a night in which Democrats lost early and often. None suffered more then Tom Daschle, who lost the Senate and is almost certain to incur a challenge to his leadership, possibly from Connecticut's Chris Dodd who challenged him for the position when he took it in 1994. Daschle created the worst of all worlds for himself. He passed Bush's tax cuts and war resolution, and yet Republicans branded him as an obstructionist. For weeks he allowed the Senate floor — with the exception of the Rose Garden, the best soundstage in American politics — to be dominated by the rants of octogenarian Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia and his tirades against Bush?s Homeland Security bill. After weeks, the bill was neither passed nor killed but weeks in which Daschle could have forced the GOP into embarrassing votes on the minimum wage and prescription drugs and pension reform were wasted.

For Al Gore, it was a mixed bag. On one hand, the results would seem to vindicate his tough-on-Bush approach. Maybe the Democrats should have, as Gore said, been tougher on Bush and Iraq and the economy. But Al Gore is a loser, too. If he's to run again, the ghosts of Florida and the victory denied him must fuel his bid. But Florida reelected the President's brother with 58 percent of the vote. If Floridians aren?t mad at Bush why should the rest of us be? To add insult to injury, former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris easily won her bid for Congress. Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic Party Chair, declared that defeating Jeb Bush was the party?s top priority. First rule of politics: Don't promise what you can't deliver.

The Silver Lining

And yet . . . Bill Clinton's electoral rout in 1994 saved his presidency. He triangulated, the GOP overreached and he won handily two years later. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson won the presidency in one of history's most stunning landslides. Who would have thought that four years later he'd be unable to run for reelection?

Who's to say that Bush's reelection bid wasn't damaged tonight? His party has responsibility for the Senate, but with a bare majority it lacks the real authority to control the chamber. Still, in the eyes of the press and the people, Bush has the levers of power, all the branches of government and all the accountability. That is an opportunity. But for someone who just eight years ago had never held political office, it's a tremendous burden as well.