When George W. Bush squeaked into office with a smaller total vote than his Democratic rival, most commentators thought the Republicans were bound to lose ground in the mid-term elections. They take place on 5th November when all 435 members of the House of Representatives and about 30 senators come up for re-election. The Democrats' surprise majority in the Senate early in 2001 re-enforced the Democrats' optimism. As recently as four weeks ago, it still seemed likely that they could upset the Republicans' six-seat majority in the House, and even widen their lead in the Senate. If that happened then the radical Republican agenda of Bush's co-religionists would be stymied. Congress could proceed with tougher laws governing corporate fraud, and get to grips with the rapidly rising costs of prescription drugs and health insurance. Recalling Bill Clinton's homily to his campaign workers in 1992 "it's the economy, stupid", Democrats felt certain that the recent US$4.5 trillion decline in the value of the stock market, a loss of 2 million jobs, and the current anaemic growth prospects, were bound to work in their favour. Foreign policy would take second place.
But as always, possession of office gives advantages to the incumbent. A president can set the political agenda if he wishes, and that's exactly what Bush and his key advisers have been doing of late. The current sense of urgency over Iraq has as much to do with the mid-term elections next month as it does with any imminent danger to world peace from Saddam Hussein. Dangerous as Saddam is, it is the security of the Republican Party more than of the United States that is uppermost in the minds of Bush's key lieutenants - Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. The Democrats know it, and have started speaking out. At first they tried to dampen the President's enthusiasm for an early congressional resolution favouring unilateral action against Iraq, but with the news media able to discuss little else, they had to come to grips with it. They now want a resolution passed as soon as possible in the hope they can get back to traditional issues. However, it is hard to contend with the sound of drums and bugles. Coming so soon after the emotional commemorations of Nine Eleven, these noises predispose Americans to side with their President. Everywhere, Republican pre-election propaganda features him, and if a candidate is lucky enough, an endorsement from popular former New York Mayor Giuliani. The polls show the President is winning on Iraq. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, the senior Democratic spokesman, has been trying to shift the focus back to the economy, but with little success. The more resolute the President sounds, the more flags flutter from high buildings, road overpasses and car aerials. Just now it looks as though Clinton's homily might be re-written : "It's NOT the economy, stupid".
There's irony in this. President Bush's father had only one term in the White House, due partly to a feeling after the Gulf War in 1991 that he lacked resolve. Many were amazed when George Bush Sr., with the support of his Secretary of Defence, Dick Cheney, and the then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, called off that war just as US troops neared the gates of Baghdad. This current administration, labelled by a comedian as "Daddy's Second Term", seems determined to re-capture the popular adulation they recklessly cast aside in 1991.
The difficulty with President Bush's strategy is that many who supported the fight to free Kuwait are perplexed this time by the sudden urgency over military action against Iraq. Cheney and Rumsfeld are doing their best to talk up the need for an invasion, but neither looks very comfortable explaining what new information they possess to warrant further congressional and Security Council resolutions, let alone an imminent invasion. Belatedly, journalists have begun to conclude that the current noise is largely pre-election posturing: Republican strategists want to divert attention from domestic issues in the same way that Teddy Roosevelt urged a war with Spain in 1898 to free Cuba before the US mid-term elections. As a Democratic official complained recently, waving the flag and impugning the patriotism of Democrats, features on page one of all Republican song-books just now.
As things stand, I doubt the Democrats have enough grunt to counter a wily White House bent on redressing the failures of Bush Senior a decade ago. But there are still five weeks to go before polling, and it will require every bit of guile that Cheney and Rumsfeld possess - which is a lot - to keep minds focused on Saddam Hussein to the exclusion of all else. Fortunately for the Republicans, Saddam himself might well become their secret weapon when he begins quibbling about whether his offer of "unconditional" inspections was for real. Only time will tell.
Michael Bassett is currently Fulbright Professor of New Zealand History at Georgetown University in Washington