Political gymnastics belie unwise decisions

DBy Larry Jacobs

did you know that growing numbers of Americans are filing new claims for unemployment insurance when they have been out of work for six months or more and are giving up even searching for jobs? The country may not be technically in another recession, but increasing numbers are struggling to make ends meet in a weak economy.

You may not have known that these economic statistics are heading south, but you probably did know that President George W. Bush has committed the United States to a “regime change” in Iraq with or without the approval of the United Nations. The predominance of the president’s campaign against Iraq and the near invisibility of the economy at home appear to be a boon to the Republicans in the upcoming congressional elections, but not in the ways that Republicans and Democrats anticipate.

Both political parties are geared up to win the 2002 elections. The elections will determine whether Republicans can maintain their slight majority in the House and whether they can regain control of the Senate. Control of Congress is especially important now because of critical upcoming decisions on Social Security and Medicare, tax cuts and national security policy.

Think back to the spring and summer when Republicans were increasingly nervous as the GOP headed into the fall congressional elections with Americans worried about the weakening economy. The country was inflamed by the corporate scandals that incinerated Enron, Arthur Andersen and other corporate giants and by doubts the administration had a plan to restart the economy and reliably police American corporations.

Then came Iraq. After almost two years in office, the Bush administration decided that the United States and the U.N. must take action against Iraq now, only weeks away from the Congressional elections. Although administration officials are careful to avoid acknowledging the obvious, domestic politics played into their timing on Iraq. The president’s campaign against Iraq has been a laser-guided missile that has obliterated important new economic news – such as the new statistics on deepening unemployment problems – even when Democratic leaders go to the Senate floor to talk about it.

The political calculations in both parties are straightforward: Voters trust Republicans more on national security and Democrats more on economic issues and corporate responsibility. If national headlines are filled with stories about Iraq and silent about the economy and the plummeting stock market, then voters will make decision with “Republican issues” at the forefront of their minds.

Not to be outdone in political gymnastics, the Democrats have decided almost overnight to take quick action and offer little, if any, significant opposition to the president’s request for a resolution authorizing “all means that he determines to appropriate, including force” to confront Iraq. Quickly rubber-stamping the president’s request, Democratic strategists plotted, would push along the Iraq issue and return “Democratic issues” to the front pages.

The cool calculations of neither party are likely to evolve as they imagine.

The Democratic game plan is as almost as implausible as it is irresponsible. Democratic Party strategists seem to believe that after a congressional vote the issue of Iraq will burn off like a morning fog to reveal a clear day in which “Democratic issues” can return to the front pages and Republicans can be grilled for neglecting the economy. Reality check: Machinations at the U.N. and then the preparations for military actions will become one of the fall’s new mini-series.

On top of misreading the fall, the Democratic leadership’s crude short-term gamble will have significant long-term consequences for the Democratic Party and the country. Their quick and widespread embrace of a permissive resolution on Iraq is the first step down the road of embracing (in rhetorical if not yet policy terms) a radical new definition of national security that President Bush released last week, “The National Security Strategy of the United States.” In a profound shift in strategy, this document calls for “acting pre-emptively” and pouring billions of dollars into making our military “strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military buildup.” In the new political future that the Democratic leadership is helping to usher in, few Democrats will be able to run for office without balancing any promises for helping farmers or those on Medicare against promises to support billions in new military spending to fend off charges of being “soft” on terrorism.

The Cheshire cat smile on the faces of many Republicans, even as they spout pious denials of ever considering politics when making military decisions, also are likely to prove temporary. Congressional elections are notoriously determined by local factors – the personal following that candidates enjoy and the economic and other conditions within congressional districts and states. Countless presidents have attempted and failed to use their popularity and leadership on national issues to affect congressional races. The congressional elections this year do not appear to be different. Democratic compliance with President Bush’s demands to act against Iraq will deny Republicans a national referendum on fighting terrorism. Meanwhile, congressional races are once again likely to be determined by the personal qualities of the candidates as well as regional economic issues and local voting blocks. And the president has now tied his political future to slewing terrorists: the failure to track down Osama bin Laden (despite the president’s promise to get him “dead or alive”) and the leader of the previous Taliban government in Afghanistan are already on the lips of potential Democratic presidential candidates in 2004; another terrorist attack would give more grounds for challenging the president’s performance.

The silver lining is that the fall campaigns offer an opportunity for voters to get the issues that concern them in front of both sets of candidates. Party strategists make decisions behind closed doors, but the candidates have to come outside to campaign and that is the moment to challenge them. Students at the University should continue their efforts to organize candidate forums and to force the candidates to explain their positions on the economy and national security. Surely, few issues are as important and as timely.