US Election Day: The Great Bush Referendum

By in New York

America is electing a new Congress, and Democrats are poised to take over. But Republicans are giving it one last push: For them, everything is on the line.

US President George W. Bush doing some last minute campaigning in Texas on Monday.
REUTERS

US President George W. Bush doing some last minute campaigning in Texas on Monday.

It was a last-ditch attempt to mobilize the reluctant base. US President George W. Bush made a quick stopover in Pensacola, Florida on Monday afternoon to beat the drum for Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist -- designated to inherit the post currently held by Bush's brother Jeb. Thousands poured into the Civic Center to catch an up close glimpse of the president, in shirt sleeves and flanked by local honoraries.

But there was one man who excused himself from this spectacle: the candidate himself. Crist had more important things to do. "We've got to fight for votes in other parts of the state," he told an irritated White House. Like in Jacksonville. Where Bush's old rival Senator John McCain was campaigning.

A telling conclusion to this election campaign, which has been remarkable not just for its bitterness, but also for its potential for change, its unpredictability, and its mélange of fact and fiction. What distinguishes this campaign is also the fact that it has become a referendum on the war in Iraq and on the president himself. Even if Bush's name isn't on any ballot, he has nevertheless been haunting the campaign like a phantom candidate.

This election could see a "tsunami of political waves hitting," believes Michael McDonald, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, a prominent think tank in Washington, DC. The tension is in the numbers. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 33 of 100 Senate seats are up for grabs, as well as another 35 gubernatorial posts. As of Tuesday morning, both chambers of Congress are still ruled by the Republicans, but surveys indicate this will likely change by the end of the day -- at least in the House, where conservatives have ruled unchallenged since the 1994 "Gingrich-revolution."

Degenerating omnipotence

In the House of Representatives, the number of seats that might change hands varies from 16 to 35, depending on who you ask. Demographer Charlie Cook even estimates the number at 62. Democrats need to get hold of just 15 districts (without losing any) to anoint Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House -- which would make her the first woman in US history to take the post. The Senate is somewhat more difficult: There, the Democrats would have to win over six seats.

The result will be at least a divided Congress, and almost unavoidably a divided government. Separation of power, in other words, looks like it is finally returning -- a change most Americans would welcome. And Wall Street is openly hedging its bets on it. After 12 years at the levers of power, Republicans seem to have grinded themselves down, in the classic degeneration of all those who rule for years virtually unopposed.

Under Republican leadership, the House and Senate have become a "do-nothing Congress" that has neglected not only its 2004 campaign promises but -- even worse -- its oversight duties with regards to the Bush dynasty. Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, torture, CIA camps, and an increasingly Orwellian state: Congress nonchalantly allowed all of this to pass through its chambers. Other laws and reforms were also sacrificed while the federal deficit exploded to almost 9 trillion dollars, and the welfare state moved to the brink of collapse.

This has not stopped billions of dollars from disappearing into the pet-projects of individual politicians, the pockets of generous party financiers, or the bank accounts of the Pentagon's contractors in Iraq. Probably the largest physical monument to this political farce can be found along the Mexican border, where Congress has authorized the construction of a 1,100-kilometer long, $7 billion barbed wire fence.

Counting chickens before they hatch

At the same time, Congress has sunken ever deeper into a wallow of scandals. Tom DeLay, the Republican House Majority Leader, resigned after he was confronted with criminal charges related to the campaign finances of a political action committee he created. At least a dozen Republicans had ties to the corrupt ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Others dug their own graves by beating their spouses, attacking their lovers or heaping favors on to friends.

Voters are hot under the collar -- especially because of the war in Iraq, the top theme of this election. Fully 61 percent of Americans now think the war was a mistake and consider Bush responsible for it, despite the latter's assertions that the Republicans are going to win on Tuesday.

Bush's popularity has plummeted to Nixon-like depths, and the president has become a real burden for Republicans, many of whom did not want to have anything more to do with Bush this election. This week's cover of the New Yorker shows Bush in a porcelain shop surrounded by broken dishware. His attempt to use the death sentence of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to his favor -- "a milestone in the Iraqi people's efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law" -- also seemed like a futile exercise. "Vote on Tuesday," a campaign poster reads on Monday in New Jersey, without naming a party or candidate. "Stop Bush!"

So far, though, Democrats haven't been able to come up with a coherent alternative. On the issue of Iraq, they have been so at odds with one another that the former presidential candidate, Senator Joe Lieberman -- who to this day stands by his vote for the Iraq war – was pushed out of the party and is now campaigning on the Independent ballot. Voters are well aware of these moves, and so too is Representative Rahm Emanuel (a Democrat from Illinois), who has organized the Democratic election campaign: He has repeatedly warned his colleagues and left-wing bloggers not to celebrate a premature victory.

The million-dollar Congressional seat

From the get-go, this election has been a cat fight: it's every (congress)man for himself. Since the summer, candidates have raked each other over the coals in TV spots that escalated in bitterness as Election Day drew nearer. Pretty soon, neither Democrats nor Republicans were all too concerned with the truth. Character assassination, racism, homophobia, half-truths, slander, hearsay, or quotes torn out of context: Nothing was too cheap in the hunt for votes.

Finally, the campaign turned to downright absurd theatrics. The cable networks have been playing old clips of the mass-audience preacher Ted Haggard, until then one of the mightiest connections of the White House to its Christian conservative base. The clips show Haggard, bible in hand, vehemently condemning homosexuality as a sin. Then the cameras quickly cut to the latest reports of Haggard's drug-induced trysts with a gay cowboy.

In the end, though, it will all boil down to one question: Who can best mobilize their base? National polls alone are no guarantee for how the chips are going to fall in individual districts, whose borders usually favor the incumbent anyway. In the home stretch, both parties engaged in a last round of heavy investing, driving the total cost of this election to roughly $2.6 billion –- more than ever before in midterm elections. The election of the rich: This time, it costs an average of $1 million to capture or even defend a congressional seat.

No "lame duck" Bush

The parties did not shy away from elaborate methods to get the tired voter to step up to the ballot box: telemarketing, focus groups, and insistent door-to-door visits. This time around, the Republican base is considered to be particularly disillusioned, lethargic and inclined to stay home. One Republican campaigner even offered to mow the lawn of an undecided voter (she accepted). Even private firms are discovering elections as a boom-business, as they sell electronic databases of voter preferences.

But even with an overwhelming Democratic victory, Bush will hardly become a "lame duck," as some are hoping. At present, he has stubbornly defied the recent (unusual) hurdles Congress tried to lay in his path. He has nothing more to lose. "We're doing what we think is right," boasts Vice President Dick Cheney.

On to the next election

In any case, there are still plenty of unknowns -- such as the many defects in the electoral system. Computers counting backwards or not at all, election hackers, intimidated voters, overwhelmed volunteers: Many districts could experience judicial challenges of the results.

For example, in Hillary Clinton's New York state, where the Poughkeepsie Journal, a local newspaper, discovered the names of 77,000 deceased voters in the lists, of whom 2,600 seem to have diligently cast their votes in the last municipal elections there.

The campaign strategists, meanwhile, are one step ahead. As soon as the polling stations close on Tuesday evening, the next game begins -– the 2008 presidential elections.

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