The Summer Wind in American Politics

Domestic Events Overshadowed by Foreign Terror Acts


“The summer wind came blowin’ in from across the sea,” as Frank Sinatra famously sang, and clearly the single most significant political development of Summer 2005 has come from abroad. No, not Iraq–there has been no change there in the dismal story of well intentioned plans gone awry, thanks to a vicious, never-ending insurgency. Rather, it’s the London bombings that will have the greatest long-term impact. With no domestic terrorist act in the U.S. since September 11, 2001, the specter of terrorism was beginning to fade a bit from our politics, with more and more Americans believing that Al Qaeda and affiliated groups had lost the capacity to pull off “the big event.” Great Britain is still America’s staunchest ally and, despite ethnic diversity aplenty in the 21st century United States, the U.K. maintains its position as the Mother Country. Most Americans of all ethnic stripes have affection for her. The brutal, deadly attacks in the heart of London have convinced Americans anew that terrorism is here to stay, much as a series of intermittent crises (Berlin, Korea, the U-2 spy plane, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Czechoslovakia and all the rest) after World War II until the fall of the Soviet Union convinced Americans that the Cold War was “Issue One” in our politics. (The Madrid subway bombings on March 11, 2004 had relatively little impact, both because Spain is not England, and because the new Spanish government reacted to the event by cutting its ties to the U.S. effort in Iraq–guaranteeing an adverse reaction among many Americans at the time.)

Some may argue that plenty of domestic events this summer have political implications, and of course that is true, to some degree: the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court, the Karl Rove imbroglio, John Bolton‘s recess appointment to the United Nations, the passage of the energy, highway, and Central American Free Trade bills, and the schism in the AFL-CIO. But the Crystal Ball sez: A tiny number of news headlines ever actually produce tangible political changes, and none of these is likely to qualify.

Everything we have seen and read so far about Roberts leads us to believe that he is brilliant, well qualified, and…very boring. Has anyone at his level ever left fewer fingerprints or had less defined opinions about the great issues of the day–as reported by the people who ought to know, the man’s close personal friends and associates? Don’t get us wrong. For Bush, boring in this case may be good, and for the nation, surely boring is most welcome. No sane person will miss yet another knock-down, drag-out divisive battle in these hyper-partisan times. Maybe once on the Court–and the nominee will be easily confirmed–Roberts will surprise, but he strikes us as an incrementalist and someone who will do his best to avoid unnecessary controversy, at least for the first few years. This is a nomination, and a name, most Americans will forget a week after the confirmation vote. Think we are exaggerating? One survey has shown that only about 8 percent of Americans can name two or more Supreme Court Justices, with 63 percent unable to name a single one.

Similarly, few outside the highly charged world of bloggers and partisans even understand the ins and outs of the scandal octopus whose visible media head has become Karl Rove. The principals in this classic summer feeding frenzy are mainly unknown, and the circumstances are confusing to anyone outside the Beltway. Even if Karl Rove were to be indicted by the special prosecutor, and thus have to resign, the seismometer would measure few aftershocks in the general public. This is a Beltway scandal if ever there was one, and we don’t mean Watergate.

John Bolton is yet another big name that will barely cross the public’s radar screen. Whether wise or foolish, the identity of the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is not of much concern to most Americans. Bolton has been portrayed as an unpleasant man, and (as one Senate witness colorfully put it) the kind of person who “kisses up and kicks down.” We’ve just described at least half of Congress and dozens of other senior executive branch appointees. Who cares, as long as we don’t have to work for them? Of course, maybe Mr. Bolton has never intentionally been rude, just as Rafael Palmiero has never intentionally taken steroids. (Attention Bill Clinton: You can sue Palmiero for a trademark violation of your semantic parsing skills.)

Next, looking at the pork-fed products of energy and highways, we’re not sure even the sponsors will want these pig-outs remembered, except of course for the specific projects in their districts or states. The taxpayers have once again paid a high price for progress–and let’s not forget the multi-million dollar “extras” larded on top for quite a few of our legislators just so CAFTA could pass. The sausage factory that is Congress has never had a bloodier look or a worse smell.

Finally, it’s possible the AFL-CIO split will matter somewhat in 2006 and 2008. Inevitably, when labor unions are fighting among themselves, they will do a less effective job in battling the opposition, and maybe raise and spend less money at election time. At the same time, the unions that have gone in a new direction may, in time, reinvigorate some parts of labor, since they are focusing on recruitment of new members and expansion of their movement. Overall, however, the schism is merely a footnote to the long-term decline of American unions. In Franklin D. Roosevelt’s time, the unions represented more than a third of all people in the labor force; now they can claim barely one in ten. Nothing that has happened this summer will move the needle all that much, nor substantially change the historical trend line.

Back to the London bombings…painful memories of September 11th came flooding back for all Americans in the wall-to-wall coverage of the tragedy in Great Britain. Politically, it will have an impact for years. Like September 11th, it is a continuing story that will unfold gradually over time, always in the headlines, whether or not there are future attacks. Every year there will be anniversary commemorations on July 7th. But most importantly, the London bombings finally convinced everyone that terrorism is here to stay, front and center, for many years to come. Like 2004, the 2008 election will now be a contest in good part about our policy toward terrorism. The natural tendency is to say that this will benefit the Republican ticket, and that may well be. But the Iraq War will play a crucial role here, as will the identity of the Democratic nominees. Simply put, will the Democratic candidates for President and Vice President have the experience and ideology to be credible, fierce, effective opponents of terrorism?

Iraq is unquestionably depressing President Bush’s public approval ratings, now hovering in the mid-40s (though this is well above the ratings for Congress). It is impossible to know what the situation will be in Iraq come 2008, but this unpopular war, if it is still ongoing in a significant way, could feed the desire for a change in party control of the White House. Democrats can hardly count on that, however, especially if they insist upon nominating a liberal ticket. Despite her efforts to become “moderate,” Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) will have great difficulty being seen as a “New Democrat”. Her image is remarkably–Republicans hope indelibly–fixed in the American mind, a product of the Bill Clinton White House years. The same is true for many others, for different reasons, including Senator John Kerry (D-MA) and former Senator John Edwards (D-NC), for whom the liberal label became a considerable albatross in the 2004 campaign. Two other Democrats, by contrast, might be able to portray themselves as both “New” and “tough on terrorism”: Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN) and Governor Mark Warner (D-VA). A ticket of these two savvy pols just might give the Democrats a fighting chance in the war on terror.

Barring a complete meltdown in Iraq, the Republicans will still be in a good position on terrorism in 2008. As always, the GOP conservatives stand to inherit Bush’s strength in this arena. This would be especially true if any one of the three best potential presidential candidates on the Republican side finally decides to run: Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condolezza Rice, and Florida Governor Jeb Bush. The second-string conservatives (Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Senator George Allen of Virginia, and Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas) are not especially credible on the issue, given their collective lack of serious hands-on foreign policy or domestic terrorism experiences, but by 2008 the Bush protective shield in this area–perhaps, in the end, Bush’s main presidential legacy–could be quite strong. Interestingly, this GOP electoral advantage applies just as thoroughly to the moderates as it does to the conservative candidates. Could a Democrat really portray Senator John McCain, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, or New York Governor George Pataki as unprepared for the war on terror, given McCain’s Vietnam background and Giuliani and Pataki’s roles in 9/11?

All these speculations might be altered by events one cannot yet imagine, of course, but the early shadows of what might be are fascinating. As for the Summer of ’05, look to London, not Washington, as the capital that casts the longest shadow on the yet-to-unfold presidential campaign of 2008.

Buckeye Forecast Bearing Fruit

In our July 14 issue the Crystal Ball, while reviewing all upcoming 2006 contests, reported that “in no state is the incumbent party in worse shape than the Buckeye State…After a long period of near one-party GOP control, Ohio may well be ripe for significant change…” On Tuesday night, this assertion received the voters’ validation. In a heavily Republican congressional district, where George W. Bush was reelected by a margin of about two-to-one, Republican Jean Schmidt barely defeated Democrat Paul Hackett, 52 percent to 48 percent. Both parties played heavily in this race, and Iraq war veteran Hackett was scathing about President Bush (“an S.O.B.,” said Hackett). Schmidt, a former state legislator, was repeatedly linked to massively unpopular Governor Bob Taft (R), whose administration is drowning in scandal. The special election was held to fill the seat of resigned Congressman Rob Portman (R), the new Bush administration U.S. trade representative.

Yes, this was a special election with a low summer turnout. Moreover, Hackett turned out to be an exceptionally good candidate and Schmidt an inadequate one. Still, unless conditions in Ohio change drastically, the GOP could be headed for disaster there in 2006. The Governorship is clearly on the chopping block, with Taft leaving office after two terms (link to Ohio Gov. analysis), and the U.S. Senate seat of incumbent Republican Mike DeWine is no longer safe (link to Ohio Sen. analysis). And will Republicans also lose some sitting U.S. House members? Currently, the GOP has 12 Ohio seats to the Democrats’ 6, and if the seat of Rep. Portman could almost be lost–he won it with 70 percent in the 2004 election–then other supposedly safe House seats could be vulnerable to takeover by Democrats.

After last Tuesday night, the Ohio GOP, and national Republicans, will be biting their nails all the way to November 2006. And the Democrats will be hoping to score a comeback in the most important state for the 2008 presidential contest.