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U.S.: Bush Strategy On Congressional Election Sidesteps Key Issue -- Economy

  • Andrew Tully

The U.S. holds congressional elections on 5 November, and both the Senate and the House of Representatives are nearly evenly balanced between rival political parties, the Republicans and Democrats. In this first of two pre-U.S. election features, RFE/RL asks whether the president and his Republican Party may not have been paying enough attention to the economy, which remains the No.1 issue among voters.

Washington, 31 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The White House says U.S. President George W. Bush hopes his Republican Party does not fall victim to historical trends in next week's congressional elections.

The trend during the 20th century was that the party of the president loses many seats in Congress in the first congressional election that follows the president's election. Yesterday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said he hopes that trend does not apply to Bush and his fellow members of the Republican Party in Congress.

"The White House would like to defy history this year. Historically, the party in power traditionally loses large numbers of seats in Congress in its first year. By all indications, that trend may be broken this cycle. Whether or not Republicans will be able to gain seats remains unclear."

The House has 435 seats, including 222 Republicans, 211 Democrats, and two independents. Because of the 11-seat difference between the Republicans and Democrats in the House, a net gain of six seats by the Democrats would give them control of that chamber of Congress. All House seats are contested every two years.

The Senate, which has 100 seats, now has 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans, and one independent who usually votes with the Democrats. Thirty-three of the Senate seats will be contested. If the Democrats lose just one Senate seat to a Republican, control of the party would be reversed, because Bush's vice president, Dick Cheney, also serves a president of the Senate and is empowered to break any tie votes.

But the question is whether Bush has done enough to help the Republican Party keep its majority in the House and perhaps even increase it, and, in the Senate, to win at least one more seat from Democrats to gain control of that chamber.

Bush and Cheney have spent much of the past two months campaigning for members of both houses. But they have spent little time addressing the health of the economy. According to polls, this is the issue that concerns Americans most.

Since the attacks of 11 September 2001, Bush has publicly focused on the war on international terrorism and, more recently, using the threat of war in an effort to force Iraq to give up its suspected nuclear-, biological-, and chemical-weapons programs. His statements on the economy have, for the most part, been limited to assertions about the soundness of American capitalism.

A president's help is usually essential for his party's fortunes, according to David Boaz, the executive vice president of the Cato Institute, an independent policy research center in Washington. Once a person is elected president, Boaz says, he becomes the de facto leader of his party for as long as he occupies the White House. As such, he chooses his party's chairman and its agenda.

Boaz, whose focus is American politics, says a president also becomes his party's principal fund-raiser: "A president certainly does raise money for the party, and the party then spends money supporting its candidates, and these days that's where the largest amounts of money in politics come from."

In fact, both Bush and Cheney have raised record amounts of money for the Republican Party for the current congressional election campaign. So far, with the help of its men in the White House, the Republican Party has raised about $190 million, while the Democrats have raised about $130 million.

Boaz tells RFE/RL that he agrees with the political axiom that Americans vote "with their pocketbooks." But he says he is reluctant to question the judgment of the president and his advisers to stress the issue terrorism over the economy.

"Clearly, the president's own popularity has gone up because of the focus on foreign policy and his role as the leader of the United States in national defense, and that presumably benefits his party. And I'm sure that he is carefully calibrating when to talk about that and when to talk about domestic issues."

David Lublin, a professor of politics at the American University in Washington, says Bush is wisely avoiding any discussion of the economy because he is vulnerable on that issue. "He's very concerned that he's seen as weaker on the economy than on foreign policy."

Lublin says Bush's father, President George H. W. Bush, lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton because he, too, was weak on economic issues. Lublin recalls that the elder Bush had very high approval ratings in 1991, the year before the election, because of his success in the Gulf War to liberate Kuwait.

But Lublin notes that in 1992, as America was beset by an economic recession, the elder Bush's popularity plummeted because he did not seem to care as much about the effects of the recession as did his challenger, Clinton.

Lublin says the younger Bush has been careful to avoid repeating his father's mistakes, but still faces difficult challenges even with the war on terrorism and the confrontation with Iraq, issues that have so far brought him great public approval.

According to Lublin, Bush could face grave political repercussions if he does not meet these challenges well. "The foreign policy issues are much trickier. If it's seen that he's not having success in attacking terrorism, things won't go well [politically at home]. If this war against Iraq doesn't go well, that's going to have costs for him as well. He's already having problems with the [proposed] war [against Iraq] in the sense that his father was able to put together this big coalition, yet he's not having nearly the same success at putting together a coalition."

Bush's immediate political challenge, however, is not his own re-election in 2004, but the political fortunes of the rest of his party. By 6 November, the world will know whether Bush was right or wrong to emphasize national security instead of the nation's economy.