A Duel, but Not Decisive
According to the pollsters, pundits and pols -- Democratic and nervous Republican -- a great anti-Republican wave is a-coming. Well, let's assume major Democratic gains: 20 to 25 House seats and four to six Senate seats. The House goes Democratic for the first time in 12 years. The Senate probably stays Republican, but by such an excruciatingly small margin that there is no governing majority.
What to say about such a victory? Substantial, yes. Historic, no. Before proclaiming a landslide, one has to ask Henny Youngman's question: "Compared to what?" (His answer to: "How's your wife?") Since the end of World War II, the average loss for a second-term presidency in its sixth year has been 29 House seats and six Senate seats. If you go back to Franklin Roosevelt's second term, the House loss average jumps to 35. Thus a 25/6 House and Senate loss would be about (and slightly below) the historical average.
True, today there is far more -- and more effective -- gerrymandering as computer power and shamelessness both have grown exponentially. So fewer seats are competitive. But that is true only for the House. You cannot gerrymander the Senate. (Of course, the Democrats are trying even that, with their perennial push for two Senate seats for the 9 to 1 Democratic District of Columbia, which should instead exercise voting rights in the state of Maryland, to which it is geographically, economically and culturally contiguous.) In his sixth year, the now-sainted Ronald Reagan lost eight Senate seats that gave the chamber back to Democratic control. That election was swayed by no wars, no weekly casualty figures, no major scandals. The first inkling of the Iran-contra scandal broke on the morning after the election.
Nonetheless, even if just one chamber falls to the Democrats this time, it will be interpreted as a repudiation of two things: President Bush and Iraq. The Democrats have certainly nationalized the election by focusing on Bush and the war -- with an overwhelming number of Democratic campaign ads doing little else than showing their Republican opponent hugging or praising or merely shaking hands with the president.
Indeed, the anti-Bush feeling is so strong that Democrats -- ignoring the niceties of federalism and enjoying the benefits of guilt by association -- have been running ads linking Bush with Bob Ehrlich, the popular Republican incumbent in the Maryland gubernatorial race.
Yes, the campaign has been nationalized. But will the results be? In the House, a good five seats (Bob Ney, Tom DeLay, Don Sherwood, Mark Foley, Curt Weldon) are likely to be lost to scandals having nothing to do with Bush or Iraq. Of the losing Senate races, only Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania can be said to be dying for the sins of their party.
The other races, if lost, will be lost largely for local reasons. In Ohio, the state is rocked by an enormous Republican scandal at the gubernatorial level that is taking the whole party down with it, Sen. Mike DeWine included. In Montana, Conrad Burns is in trouble because of his association with Jack Abramoff, not George Bush.
In Virginia, a state that should not even be in play, George Allen has run the worst campaign in living memory, stumbling onto one ethnic land mine after another -- "macaca," the Yiddish mama, N-word allegations. And in New Jersey, the one Democratic seat that could conceivably go the other way and save Senate control for the Republicans, the drag on Sen. Bob Menendez is the very nonnational issue of official corruption.
So when the results come in and the Democrats begin to crow, remember this: By historical standards, this is the American people's usual response to entrenched power -- a bracing and chastening contempt. Sixth-year presidents nearly always bring their parties down. (Republican overreaching on the Monica Lewinsky scandal made Bill Clinton's sixth year an exception.) Moreover, this year, the out-of-the-blue Foley scandal interrupted whatever national momentum the Republicans had gained after successfully passing legislation on terrorist interrogation and detention, and thus refocusing attention on their strongest suit, the war on terrorism.
The election will be a referendum of sorts on Iraq. But it will be registering nothing more than uneasiness and discontent. Had the Democrats offered a coherent alternative to the current policy, one could draw lessons as to what course the country should take. But if either friends or enemies interpret the results as a mandate for giving up, they will be mistaken.