US mid-term elections
There's an old saying in politics that to succeed, governments must keep flying; roost, and hunters pick you off. No one proved this better than George W. Bush last week. He came from behind in the popular vote for the presidency two years ago, and was hoisted into the White House by a questionable Supreme Court ruling. At first he looked like a lame duck. But possession of the "bully pulpit" as Theodore Roosevelt once called the presidency - gives an incumbent awesome power if he's prepared to use it. Bush's Republican co-religionists with their steely determination and narrowly focused agendas were determined he'd do just that.
At first it wasn't easy. Bush was hesitant, under-prepared for the challenge, and prone to verbal gaffes and shallow thoughts. The economy closed in, and pundits started thinking that, like his father, he'd survive one term only. Behind the scenes, however, his staff had other plans. Their intensity stepped up when control of the Senate slipped away from the Republicans in 2001. Upcoming Senate races - and there were thirty or so of them at stake in the mid-term elections last week - were studied carefully. Weak Republican incumbents would be pushed aside and new, younger faces found.
Then came September 11, 2001. It generated a tidal wave of support for Bush as Americans wrestled, like the subjects of a home invasion, with their vulnerability. They found comfort in their president. His popularity soared. He has maintained 60% approval ever since. Republican aparatchiks who'd earlier seemed almost apologetic about their man's manifold deficiencies, grabbed this opportunity. White House staffers led by Karl Rove went to work with a will. Since that fateful New York day there has been a sustained momentum that eventually delivered crucial Republican victories last week.
From the White House's war room where Rove's polling continues around the clock, plans were hatched to edge Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire aside in favour of young John Sununu whose father had been Bush Senior's loyal Chief of Staff. Careful logistical planning in South Dakota, Minnesota and Missouri where incumbent Democrats looked vulnerable, led to some shrewd candidate shuffling by the Republicans. Potential winners were tapped, and the President, like an elected monarch, bestowed royal imprimaturs on favourites like brother Jeb and Katherine Harris in Florida, plus his own former lieutenant governor in Texas.
Outweighing all of this, however, was the administration's capacity to maintain momentum. The so-called war on terror provided the opportunity. It could be warmed or cooled as the need required. After Afghanistan came a lull, but the Middle East kept producing evidence that the battle wasn't over. During last summer the President started stirring the Iraqi pot. What to do about Saddam was bound to divide the Democrats. They have a long record of fighting wars, but always on their terms; agreeing to someone else's war, especially if it wasn't conducted under the aegis of the United Nations, turned them inside out. They fell apart, too, over Bush's proposed tax cuts. Moving forward to a careful plan, the President subtly rewarded friends and divided enemies. The Democrats were constantly in retreat, victims of having lost the bully pulpit, and suffering lack of leadership. When Al Gore emerged from the shadows sounding like he'd run again in 2004, frustration surfaced. The party seemed locked in a time warp. Only the Republicans had momentum.
Not that the margin between the parties was ever large. But to win, the Democrats needed charismatic figures like Bill Clinton. His era has passed, however. They needed to regain congressional momentum, but the President and the Republicans in general were capable of ensuring that never happened. Whenever Tom Daschle, the Democrats' Senate Majority leader, looked like getting traction on economic issues or corporate fraud - and Americans are worried by both - Iraq, Yemen, or North Korea's nuclear plans would gallop across the horizon like cavalry intent on rescuing their Republican general while he criss-crossed the plains in support of his chosen candidates.
Little was left to chance. Republicans even debated usually Democratic issues like health care, social security and prescription drugs, muddying the minds of many Democrats, especially African Americans, some of whom stayed at home on polling day. Low turnouts in black areas defeated Democrats like the potential star Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in Maryland, and several key figures in Georgia.
Luck, too, appeared in Republican guise. The Democrats lost Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota in a plane crash. The delayed effects of Mel Carnahan's similar crash two years ago weakened the Democrats in Missouri where his widow struggled in the US Senate. Last-minute Democratic replacements, however, were weary warriors of yesteryear, leaving a perception that the Democrats preferred reverse gear to drive.
In the end, the mid-term elections were about possession of office and maintaining momentum. One helps the other. Between them they always trump intellectual debate. However uneasy I feel about rampant Republicans, their professional campaigning deserved reward.
Michael Bassett is currently Fulbright Professor of New Zealand Studies at Georgetown University in Washington DC.