Triumph of conservative right has far-reaching implications for US

 

This was no landslide but victory was sweet for Republicans, who haveachieved the 'Bush-ification' of America, writes Conor O'Clery, in New York

The sweetest victory for President George W. Bush was in Florida. The Democrats had targeted his brother, Governor Jeb Bush, who was strongly challenged in Tuesday's mid-term elections by Democrat Bill McBride. They would win Florida and pick off the Bushes one brother at a time, boasted Democratic Party National Chairman Terry McAuliffe. Florida will "set us up very nicely for 2004." The Democrats wanted to show that they really did deserve to win the Sunshine State, and the presidency, in the 2000 election, when the recount was stopped by the US Supreme Court with George Bush marginally ahead.

Instead Jeb Bush coasted to victory for another term as governor, and it is George Bush who now can lay full claim to the mandate of legitimacy which many denied him after the recount fiasco.

But if Florida was a personal endorsement and a family celebration, other Republican victories came with the slimmest margins. This was no landslide. The results from across the country were instead a triumph for the White House strategy of putting the president into the most competitive races in the final weeks of the campaign.

History was not on his side. No Republican president had ever seen his party gain seats in the House of Representatives in a mid-term election. Indeed the party that controls the White House almost invariably loses House seats in the first mid-term elections of a new president. The only exception was in 1934 when Democrats gained seats during President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first term.

Except for three months in 2000 when James Jeffords of Vermont voted as a Republican, the Republican Party has not controlled the White House and both Houses of Congress since the Eisenhower administration from 1952-1954. This time the Republicans bucked history on all counts, achieving, as CBS newsman Dan Rather put it, "the Bush-ification of America". The Grand Old Party increased its small majority in the House and won back the Senate. For only the fourth time since Abraham Lincoln a president's party picked up House seats in a mid-term election.

The conservative right now dominates the White House, the House of Representatives, the Senate and the Supreme Court. The implications for the US are far-reaching. Nothing now stands in the way of Mr Bush enacting his conservative agenda.

He can press ahead with his plans for a Homeland Security Department, more tax cuts and partial privatisation of Social Security. Democrats worry that, as Senator Barbara Boxer of California said, Republicans will set back environmental laws and women's rights and appoint overly conservative judges. The Democrats, by losing the Senate, have forfeited their ability to block White House nominations for judges, as they had done with four out of 10 of President Bush's mostly conservative choices in the last two years.

Corporate America will be relieved: its biggest critics amid the welter of financial scandals have come from the Democrats' ranks.

Why did the Democrats do so badly? Bill Clinton said yesterday he thought it was because the country had been preoccupied since September 11th with the problem of terrorism. A country under attack supports its president. Iraq also dominated much of the election season, rather than the weak economy and corporate malfeasance.

The Democrats found it hard to make their voice heard without a leading presidential candidate. They had no coherent policy, nothing like Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America" which swept the Republicans into power in the House in 1994. Their objection to Bush's new Department of Homeland Security because of labour issues left them open to foot-dragging on national security.

Many Democrats embraced Bush policies such as tax cuts, and gave African-Americans and other minorities little reason to come out and vote Democrat in large numbers.

And they couldn't counter the popularity of President Bush. On the eve of the election, 63 per cent of voters said they approved of the job he was doing. That, too, defied history; it was the highest rating for any president going into his first mid-term election since Franklin Roosevelt. One in three voters said they would vote Republican because of Bush.

It wasn't all good news for the president. He made the Senate race in South Dakota a proxy battle between himself and local Senator Tom Daschle, the outgoing Senate Majority leader, visiting the state many times to campaign for John Thune, who lost narrowly. Tim Hutchinson, one of the Senate's most emphatic religious, pro-gun and anti-abortion conservatives and a zealous supporter of Mr Bush, lost to Mark Pryor, a moderate Democrat and Arkansas's attorney general. Hutchinson, a former Southern Baptist minister, had championed family values but then divorced and married a younger member of his staff and this had gone down badly with supporters.

And in the governors' races, despite the Republicans' big win in Florida, and despite the stunning defeat in Maryland of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, daughter of Robert Kennedy, the Democrats did well, securing half the 50 state houses for the first time since 1994. In most gubernatorial races, where state governments have run up huge deficits, the economy was the issue.

The lesson of this election was that the Democrats failed to make this the issue at every level. Their consolation is that next time, in 2004, the voters will have only one party to blame for everything that has gone wrong.