The Vultures Gather
America's Midterm Elections
The Economist/November 2, 2006
“YOU have been sat here too long for any good you have been doing,” Oliver Cromwell famously declared, as he dissolved the Rump Parliament in 1653. If the polls are to be believed, American voters will say much the same to George Bush's Republicans when they vote in the mid-term congressional elections on November 7th. Although the Republicans may hold on to the Senate, where only 33 of the 100 seats are at stake, almost everyone expects that they will lose the majority they have held in the House of Representatives for the past 12 years. The scent of Republican defeat is in the air (see article).
Much of the blame rightly attaches to Mr Bush. He may not be on the ballot this year, but mid-terms are in large part a referendum on the president. Iraq, Katrina and Guantánamo have become globally recognised one-word indictments of an administration that has been simultaneously incompetent and cavalier. At home, he has failed to get government spending under control, especially when it comes to the “entitlements”, principally health care and pensions, that will overwhelm America's finances as its population ages. He has also pandered to the religious right, opposing stem-cell research and promoting a federal amendment banning gay marriage.
There are points, to be sure, in Mr Bush's favour. The economy has done reasonably well; the Dow (though not other financial indices) recently hit a record high, inflation is modest and unemployment is at a level that most countries would envy. Despite everything that is going wrong in Iraq, Americans at home have been safe: no terrorist has landed a blow on American soil in the five years since September 11th 2001. Yet these achievements do not play as well for Mr Bush as they should. Growth is slowing, and most of the benefits of the recent boom have accrued to the wealthiest. Economic insecurity is perceived by many to be rising; and polls also suggest that voters increasingly see the Iraq misadventure as threatening their domestic security too. When you see Mr Bush featured in a political television ad, you can be pretty confident that a Democrat put him there.
Why should the Republicans in Congress take the blame for Donald Rumsfeld's incompetence or Dick Cheney's tolerance of “waterboarding” terrorist suspects? Because Congress was meant to be the first line of defence. The more an administration errs, the more essential it is that Congress—the first branch of government, according to the constitution—perform its appointed role of supervising the executive with rigour.
In fact the record of the 109th Congress has been terrible. First and foremost, it has failed in its duty of oversight. The conduct of the war, conditions at Guantánamo, the overspending: the administration has seldom had to face hostile questioning from either the House or the Senate. There have been a few honourable exceptions in the upper chamber, notably John McCain's interventions on the use of torture. But in general the Republicans have smothered debate. Omnibus bills, thousands of pages long, have been voted through in the small hours on the nod. The number of days the House spent sitting in 2006 was the lowest in 60 years.
Then there is sleaze. The majority leader of the House, Tom DeLay, had to resign his post because he is facing charges over election-funding violations. Two other sitting Republican congressmen have been found guilty of corruption. The resignation last month of Mark Foley, a Republican congressman accused of sending salacious e-mails to young congressional pages, is merely the latest blow.
Worse than sleaze is pork. All Congresses like to vote money for pet projects, most recently using “earmarks” to tie a grant of federal money to a local scheme. But this one has been astonishing: the number of earmarks has shot up tenfold since the Republicans took the House in 1994. The party of small government has become the party of the absurd $223m “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska. Over the past six years the House Republicans have repeatedly snuffled up the sugar that had been meant to make the bitter pill of entitlement reform go down, without swallowing the hard stuff. Voters might reasonably have expected a degree of austerity from the conjunction of Republicans in the White House, Senate and House. Instead, the past six years have seen a $236 billion surplus transmogrified into a nearly equal and opposite deficit, with the prospect of much bigger deficits to come.
From the Republicans' viewpoint a spell in opposition could be useful: it would give them a chance to cleanse their Augean stables, temper their fealty to the religious right and get rid of the nonsense of big-government conservatism. The last time they were dumped in a national election, in the Clinton landslide of 1992, they returned with a vengeance in the Gingrich revolution of 1994. A clobbering now would probably make them more likely to turn to an electable candidate in 2008.
For an independent voter the only argument for keeping the Republicans in charge is the prospect of something worse (Cromwell, remember, replaced the Rump Parliament with a military dictatorship). And there are plenty of things to worry about with the Democrats. Their party looks ever more susceptible to the siren call of protectionism. It has no better ideas than the president for dealing with the mess in Iraq (and some worse ones). And robust scrutiny could give way to hotheaded revenge. It would surely do Mr Rumsfeld a power of good to be hauled before opposition-dominated committees from time to time; but talk of impeaching Mr Bush is dangerous. Nancy Pelosi, the worryingly left-leaning representative from San Francisco who is likely to be speaker, will have a tough job keeping control (see article).
Realistically, though, how much damage could a Democratic Congress do? It would be hard for Democrats to force Mr Bush to pull out of Iraq, short of cutting off funds—which no one is contemplating. Their record on spending could hardly be any worse than the Republicans'. On trade, they could do real but limited harm to a few deals in the pipeline, but without the president's approval they cannot force a rethink of NAFTA or alter the terms of trade with China: the Doha round looks sadly doomed whoever wins next week.
In fact it is possible that a divided government could actually work better than a united one. Mr Bush was rather good at bipartisan government when he needed to be, as governor of Texas in the 1990s. And the notion of shared sacrifice can be a powerful one. If both parties are involved in doing difficult but necessary things, neither side can make political capital at the expense of the other and trade-offs can be made. It worked, after a fashion, following the Republican landslide of 1994, with Bill Clinton signing welfare reform. It might work again with immigration reform.
None of this amounts to an enthusiastic endorsement of the incoherent Democrats. There are a few independent-minded Republicans, especially in the Senate, who deserve to keep their seats. But sometimes ruling parties become so addled and incompetent they need to be punished. “Depart, and let us have done with you,” Cromwell told the Rump Parliament. The Republicans deserve the same next week.