A Republican victory

Print edition : December 06, 2002

The Republican Party defies historical trends to wrest control of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

IT was a night that United States President George W. Bush and the Republican Party and the Democrats and their leaders too, but for different reasons will remember for a long time.

The Republicans defied historical trends and captured power on Capitol Hill, improving their position in the House of Representatives by at least three seats. But the real shock was in the Senate, where the Grand Old Party (GOP) not only retained its open seats but defeated the Democrats in Missouri and Minnesota.

The recapture of the Senate by the GOP was a major achievement, though its 51-seat advantage cannot be seen as something that it can use to set the legislative agenda. At the same time, the re-taking of the Senate means more than bickerings with the Democrats about office and parking spaces.

The Congressional elections of November 5 have already had their impact on the Democratic Party. Richard Gephardt, the House Minority Leader, stepped down after heading the Caucus for eight years. In the last three elections, the Democrats had won seats in the House and narrowed the margin with the Republicans.

Gephardt's departure has also to be seen in the context of the politician from Missouri being a likely candidate for the presidential elections of 2004. Some political observers might argue that it is too early to draw such a conclusion, but politicians are known to express their interest in contesting the election around this time of the year.

At the time of writing, there seems to be little trouble for the soon-to-be Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who in many ways tried to be a match to President Bush during the campaign. Although the Bush-Daschle proxy war in South Dakota may have gone in favour of the Democratic leader, Daschle knows that the victory of incumbent Democratic Senator Tim Johnson by a margin of 527 votes was nothing to be proud of.

The last eight weeks of campaigning proved that the Bush White House was not leaving anything to chance in its attempt to capture control of Capitol Hill. The hectic campaigning of Bush in the last days of October and November showed that he had clearly upped the ante for himself for the next two years and for the presidential elections of 2004. That Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney raised more than $150 million for the party and the candidates is another "impressive" story.

Those who had written off Bush politically as a novice who stumbled into the Presidency, courtesy the U.S. Supreme Court, are now taking a fresh look at their conclusion. Bush not only handpicked several of the candidates for the elections to the Senate and the House of Representatives, but his political advisers and strategists were micro-managing events from hundreds of miles away.

The Republicans were particularly happy with what happened in Minnesota. The death of the incumbent Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone in a plane crash sent the party leadership scrambling for an alternative candidate. They came up with Walter Mondale, the 74-year-old former Senator and Vice-President. The hope was that a famous name as was the case in New Jersey with Frank Lautenberg entering the race at the last minute will save the day.

In the end the funeral service for Wellstone and a determined Republican campaign kept Mondale away from Washington. Even Democratic Party activists acknowledged that the funeral service was so brazenly political that it worked to the disadvantage of Mondale. Some would argue that the funeral service, where top Republican leaders were booed, had its impact even outside Minnesota, perhaps in neighbouring Missouri.

The GOP may not be content with 51 seats and is expected to work hard to defeat the Democratic Senator from Louisiana, Mary Landrieu, who is facing a run-off on December 7. While State laws mandated a 50 per cent plus margin for victory, Mary Landrieu secured only 46 per cent of the vote.

IN the Democratic camp, several questions are being posed on the future direction of the party, especially in the matter of devising a strategy for the 2004 presidential polls. The emergence of Nancy Pelosi, the Senator from California and a liberal, as an alternative to Gephardt is something that will be paid close attention to even within the Democratic Party. For a party that has moved to the centre and still has its share of conservatives, the coming to the fore of a liberal is bound to raise some eyebrows.

The Democrats lost because the environment was so charged with issues relating to national security and terrorism that party leaders failed to deflect attention from the war mongering of the White House and the administration. What little advantage the Democrats may have had was lost in their inability to convey a coherent alternative message to the electorate.

For all practical purposes, the focus of both the Republicans and the Democrats is going to be on the domestic agenda, with the President making it known that he is not going to wait for the new 108th Congress to be convened in January 2003 to get the unfinished business done. Bush wants the lame-duck session of the 107th Congress that convenes on November 12 to pay attention to constitution of a Department of Homeland Security the proposal for which is held up in the Senate and for pushing through on the spending Bills.

"The election may be over, but a terrorist threat is still real. The Senate must pass a Bill that will strengthen our ability to protect the American people," Bush said, in referring to the proposed Homeland Security Department.

The Democrats can be expected to be tough with issues that are vital to them, especially those that pertain to the economy, social security, medicare and education. A major showdown is expected in the Senate over judicial nominees and appointments. With the Senate Committees switching to Republican Chairs in January 2003, there is going to be a battle of sorts that will include the White House.

But the Republicans will be careful on how they go about conducting legislative business on Capitol Hill as they remember well the fallout of 1994 of Newt Gingrich and his Contract With America. It is perhaps for this reason that Bush did not want his staff and advisers to boast about the election results.

Although the primary focus is on the domestic front, it does not mean that foreign policy is going to take a back seat in the next two years of the Bush administration. The continuing war on terrorism means that Washington will still be looking up to Pakistan as a "stalwart ally" even while making all the necessary "noises" about the return of democracy in the country. However, South Asia is unlikely to have any special significance in terms of the election results over and beyond the present thrusts in U.S. foreign policy.

The Republican administration is keeping an eye on Iraq as one of its major foreign policy challenges. A lot of time and energy is going to be spent on Iraq for the next several months, perhaps even lasting until the presidential election in 2004. The impression is that in spite of the latest United Nations Resolution 1441 on Iraq, the U.S. sees itself as having the right to go it alone in the event of Iraq President Saddam Hussein baulking at weapons inspections.

For now, Bush has accepted the advice of his associates in the Cabinet, like Secretary of State Colin Powell, to rope in the U.N. in dealing with Iraq. On the other hand, it is clear that the administration has lost its patience. Condoleezza Rice, the President's National Security Advisor, said: "We have to have a zero tolerance view of the Iraqi regime this time. This is a regime with a very long history now of deception and defeat."

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor