The war on terror has created a new political climate in America.
WE ARE NO LONGER an equally divided, 50-50 nation. America is now at least 51-49 Republican and right of center, more likely 52-48, maybe even 53-47. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, created a new political era, and the midterm election on November 5 confirmed it. Sure, a shift of 20,000 or 30,000 votes in a couple of states would have kept the Senate in Democratic hands.
WE ARE NO LONGER an equally divided, 50-50 nation. America is now at least 51-49 Republican and right of center, more likely 52-48, maybe even 53-47. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, created a new political era, and the midterm election on November 5 confirmed it. Sure, a shift of 20,000 or 30,000 votes in a couple of states would have kept the Senate in Democratic hands. But the GOP gains were from top to bottom: an unprecedented Senate takeover plus a bigger House majority, a majority of governorships, the defeat of more incumbent Democratic governors than Republican, and a plurality of state legislatures. The legislative pickup gave Republicans more state legislators nationwide than Democrats for the first time in a half century. And most amazing: All this was achieved against the historic tide of a midterm election, which normally produces sizable losses for the president's party. It's true that no "issues" dominated the fall campaign. But September 11 had produced two things that did. First, it created the circumstances for a strong, popular leader to emerge and President Bush seized the opportunity. And second, it introduced a factor that affects politics and policy even when it goes unmentioned. That factor: the vulnerability of America to terrorists and a national yearning for security. It is like the Cold War all over again, a wartime situation that is mostly peaceful, but with the threat of terrible violence always at hand. This kind of situation is more helpful to Republicans than Democrats on Election Day. Democrats have largely ignored the anxiety over security or taken it lightly. The party's national chairman, Terry McAuliffe, said the Republican victories were "tactical" and thus not especially significant. Well, they're important enough that he's likely to lose his job because of them. Certainly the gains were a personal triumph for Bush, who, along with risking his sky-high job approval, campaigned more relentlessly for his party's candidates than even President Clinton did in his first midterm in 1994. But the Republican triumph was not just about George Bush. It had breadth and depth. Capturing the Senate for the president's party in his first midterm election--that has never happened before. In a normal midterm, the president's party loses 30 House seats, but this time Republicans gained 6. The raw vote--the total of all 435 House races--was 53-47 percent Republican, roughly the same as in 1994, when Republicans blew Democrats away in a national sweep. As for state legislative seats, the average loss in an initial midterm is 300, but the GOP added 225 on November 5. The Democrats' alibi was that their base--liberals, minorities, feminists, and union members--didn't show up in large numbers. In truth, the base turned out in most states. In Minnesota, there was a record turnout, and Democrats still lost the governor's office and a Senate seat. In many areas, there was evidence of a large black turnout that went strongly against Republicans. But what Bush produced was a bigger white vote that was as overwhelmingly pro-GOP in House races as it was in 1994. As a result, non-incumbent Republican candidates for governor broke through in blue, or Al Gore, states (Vermont, Minnesota, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Maryland) and red ones (South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Alaska, New Hampshire, and South Dakota). Voting shifts by two groups contradicted the theory of an emerging Democratic majority. The rapidly growing Hispanic vote is a cornerstone of the theory. But Latinos moved in a Republican direction this year. In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush won half the non-Cuban Hispanic vote. In New York, Gov. George Pataki won 51 percent of Hispanics, a higher percentage than he won overall. In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry won 35 percent of Latinos against a Hispanic Democrat with virtually 100 percent name ID and an unlimited budget for TV ads. This suggests a serious chunk of the Latino vote may now be permanently Republican, especially in Texas. Another group that's supposedly migrating to the Democratic party is professionals. But younger voters, who I suspect include an increasing number of professionals, are ever so gradually tilting Republican. A higher percentage of 18-30-year-olds voted Republican in 2000, a presidential election year, than in 1996. And it appears the same trend occurred in the midterm elections from 1998 to 2002. Most strikingly, some state exit polls last week showed that women in the 18-30 cohort voted Republican as often as men--in other words, no gender gap. Though Bush's standard campaign speech was treated indifferently by the national media, it explicitly played up the national security theme. "We're on alert now in America," he told a crowd in St. Paul, Minnesota, two days before the election. "We understand the battlefield has come home." Later that day in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Bush declared that after September 11, "the world changed." The most critical task in Washington, he said, is "to protect the homeland, to protect you from further attack, to prevent an enemy, which hates America because we love freedom, from hurting innocent life ever again." In every address, Bush concentrated on the need for a Department of Homeland Security and the recklessness of Democrats in blocking its passage. On September 23, Bush said: "The Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people." The remark is noteworthy because it evoked an outraged response from Senate majority leader Tom Daschle. In hindsight, my guess is Daschle inadvertently aided Bush by drawing attention to the statement, which most Americans probably didn't find outrageous at all. Months ago, Republicans began emphasizing homeland security and the war on terrorism in their campaigns. Roy Blunt, the deputy House GOP whip, told me it was of deep concern to voters. I was dubious, as were Democrats, who failed to grasp the public's desire for security. When Republican Saxby Chambliss faulted Democratic senator Max Cleland for lacking the courage to break with unions opposing Bush's homeland security bill, Cleland huffily insisted his patriotism had been called into question. No, said Chambliss, it was his voting record. You can figure who won that exchange. Democrat Walter Mondale, the stand-in for Paul Wellstone in Minnesota, didn't catch on either. "Don't worry about me and terrorism," he said in his lone debate with Republican Norm Coleman. "I'm opposed to it." That comment was likely to have reassured no one. In Missouri, Democratic senator Jean Carnahan trivialized the terrorist threat when she said Bush had failed to get Osama bin Laden and so now was targeting her. Carnahan had voted for the resolution authorizing the president to take military action against Iraq and Mondale sternly opposed it. In the end, the distinction didn't matter, as both lost. A few Democrats understood the new political environment--Sen. Joe Lieberman, House minority leader Dick Gephardt, Rep. Martin Frost of Texas--but most were clueless. Democrats are hurting for other reasons as well. Their perennial scare tactics about Social Security have finally exhausted their usefulness. And if Bush's economic policies are unpopular, then the Democratic alternative (raising taxes) is more so. As David Brooks has noted, traumatic events have dramatic consequences. World War I ended the Progressive Era, World War II drained the activism of the New Deal, the Iran hostage crisis brought forth more assertive policies, and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 snuffed out the Gingrich revolution. The September 11 attacks produced a new political climate. Bush recognized it. Democrats still don't. Karl Rove, Bush's all-purpose adviser, says shifts from one party to another occur in "modest, small, incremental" steps that are often difficult to reverse. A few of these steps occurred on Election Day. The theory of an emerging Democratic majority holds that demographic change (more Hispanic voters, pro-Democratic professionals, and women) will be sufficient to reverse them. The evidence of November 5 tells a different story. Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.
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