We are happy to bring a guest comment on the US Mid-Term elections. Today’s guest commentator is David Pontoppidan, who studies sociology and is research assistant at CEPOS.
Politics rather than policy
By David Pontoppidan
There has been much debate on the result and outcome of the US midterm elections since the Democrats took back Congress last week. What effect will their sweeping victory have on the upcoming presidential election in 2008? And with Nancy Perilous’ Pelosi as speaker of the House, what impact will the election result have on US policy? According to John Fortier, scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who visited Denmark last week, the impact on US policy will be minimal, but the result on US politics overwhelming. This was his main point at the meeting held last Monday by the Danish free-market think tank CEPOS.
It’s important here to distinguish between the difference in meaning of policy and politics. Policy consists of setting forth actual bill proposals and engaging in bipartisan settlements. In other words what politics should be all about. Politics in reality, however, is all the rest: investigative committees with unfavourable witnesses, filibusters and philandering, accusations and double standards. According to John Fortier, this will be the primary effect of the Democratic victory. With the 2008 elections being so open, Nancy Pelosi’s promises of bipartisan cooperation will soon drown in the presidential campaign from both camps, regardless of what she may say or think. The result of which will be more politics, and less policy. Donald Rumsfeld and UN Ambassador John Bolton may be the first casualties of the midterm elections, but Pelosi could be the first in 2008.
I took the liberty during John Fortier’s lecture to mention some historical events that may prove this thesis wrong. E.g., after the midterm elections in 1986, during Reagan’s second presidential term, the democrats had majority in both House and Senate, and through various committees investigated the Iran-contra scandal, tried to push own issues through and worked against Reagan’s agenda. The result, two years later, was Walter Mondale running against George Bush Sr., an election the Democrats will be highly unlikely to try and repeat in 08. And after Nancy Pelosi having to promise on live television that the democrats won’t impeach President Bush, as if this was something fairly common, the danger of a “showdown” is definitely present. The question is if the Democrats will wait until 2008 before they draw arms.
“I would think that every Democrat has been reading up on how Newt Gingrich took back Congress in ’94 with his Contract with America'”, says John Fortier. Pelosi has been compared to Gingrich, in spite of their difference in opinion but because of similar style. Yet opinion polls taken immediately before the midterm elections in ’94, show that only 16% of the American public had a negative view of Newt Gingrich. The following April, it was almost 40%! As former top aide to President Clinton, Paul Begala put it in the International Herald Tribune, Whitehouse spokesperson under Clinton put it, “We pushed it, but Newt did most of it to himself”. Nancy Pelosi may prove more perilous to herself than the Republican Party if she decides to continue down this path.
These are all good indicators that the Democrats should favour of a more bipartisan Congress the next two years, John Fortier agrees. But they won’t. Mainly because there is one major difference. In 1988 you had a former Vice President who was running for office. In 1994 you had President Clinton preparing for re-election, and the Republicans wanting to hold on to power. The presidential race in 2008 will be very different, because it’s so open. Dick Cheney isn’t running for office, and since the midterm elections were decided on the question of Iraq, it’s very unlikely that Condoleezza Rice will be running as well, as a colleague of John Fortier, Joshua Muravchik, recently put it. The Republicans have been looking for the Ken-doll of conservative politics, a good middle-of-the-road conservative, ever since this became apparent. One such Republican, former Senator George Allen from Virginia, who has previously been mentioned on this blog as a possible candidate, struck out in the midterm elections, and thereby lost his presidential chances according to Fortier. The same goes for the former senator of Montana. There is no obvious heir to the throne in the GOP, and the same can partly be said of the Democrats.
Whether this is a good thing or not remains open to debate. For those hoping for a Democratic revolution similar to the Republican revolution in ’94, prospects may be dim. For those hoping for actual policy-change, the same can be said. Instead, Fortier predicts, the debate will be heated, while the actual policy will be on hold until 2008, even though this may harm Democratic chances in ’08. As the Daily Telegraph reported the day after John Fortier’s meeting, George McGovern, the Democrat 1972 presidential anti-war candidate who lost a landslide victory to Richard Nixon, will be addressing more than 60 senate- and house-representatives next week on the issue of Iraq, not to mention John Myrtha, an outspoken anti-war senator whom Pelosi is backing as future Senate Majority Whip. A clear example that gives credence to Fortier’s theory of a heated political debate that won’t result in actual policy.
As William Kristol of the Weekly Standard put it, the election was won on dissatisfaction with the strategy for victory in Iraq, not for withdrawal. “Staying the course” is obviously no longer an option for President Bush. But while the debate in Congress may heat up and the filibusters increase, withdrawal is unrealistic.
The most important factor in American politics at the moment is the X-factor. Who will be the candidates in 2008? And can an incumbent senator really win the Presidential election for the first time since John F. Kennedy? First of all, the challenges for a senator-would-be-president, who suddenly has to balance a budget, rather than increase it, seem clear. Furthermore, a Clinton or a Bush has been on the presidential ticket for the last 25 years. Will the Americans continue this trend?
If both Senators John McCain and Hillary Clinton are left out as obvious candidates, we may be witness to one of the most exciting and unpredictable presidential races in US history – but for now it’s politics, rather than policy.