The Meaningless Election

This coming election has no meaning. That seems to be the reasonable consensus of the polirati. USA Today columnist Walter Shapiro, for one, has dubbed it the "Seinfeld election: a campaign about nothing." No grand issues. No large themes. Not even a damn narrative.

This is unlike non-presidential elections of the recent past. Four years ago, the contest was widely considered a referendum on the Republican's scorched-earth impeachment crusade. Bill Clinton and the Dems came out on top, picking up five seats in the House.

The 1994 campaign was viewed, as is usually the case in the off-year election during a first-term presidency, as a chance for voters to register dissatisfaction with the new guy in the White House. The Republicans and the Gingrichers rode that historical trend hard and snatched control of the House and Senate.

Certainly, congressional elections are not national races. They are decided on the local level, mostly upon local or candidate-specific factors. But national political events, trends or moods can help or hinder the candidates of one party over another.

What is there to assist or block the contenders of 2002? Is this election about the war on terrorism? The soon-to-be-announced war on Iraq? Or economic ills? Is it a judgment of George W. Bush?

The campaign has barely registered on the national radar screen. First, for weeks war-talk pushed aside political coverage in newspapers and in cable-news-land. Then, when the Democratic leadership in Congress went along with the resolution granting Bush the power to launch war against Iraq, in the (false and silly) hope that finally the discourse could be switched (like a television channel) to economic topics, the Washington sniper became a GOP ally. Each day that he -- or they -- dominated the news was yet another 24 hours in which the Democrats could not get TV-time to grouse about the economy.

In such an environment, it is easy for the President to suck up the precious amount of oxygen remaining for politics. An example: On the morning of October 21, Bush announced a plan to increase the availability of cheaper generic drugs. CNN aired it live. Once Bush was finished, anchor Paula Zahn asked White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux about the timing of the remarks. "Good point," Malveaux replied, and she explained Bush's comments did seem designed to help Republican candidates beat back Democratic attacks on this front. Then it was -- quick! -- back to sniper coverage.

Zahn had briefly mentioned Democrats were critical of the Bush plan, but there was no examination of the criticism or the Bush proposal. The audience heard from no policy experts, nor from partisans, who could discuss (or argue over) the benefits and drawbacks of the idea. In other words, CNN practically provided Bush a free commercial.

This is the network that promotes its campaign coverage with a promo ad that says "election matters," in which Larry King tells viewers election results will have an impact on their lives. And that is true.

The cost of medicine is a life-and-death issue for far more Americans than those who might be threatened by a sniper. Yet what "matters" does not determine how -- or if -- an election is covered. As one MSNBC host said to me before the alleged killer was arrested, "The sniper's great for our numbers." What else does a producer need to know?

It's not as if Team Bush believes this election is about prescription drug costs. With Bush's generic drug plan -- which lacks strong enforcement procedures and offers manufacturers more loopholes than pending congressional legislation -- the Republicans were merely being prudent.

While economic discontentment has not emerged as a discernible force in this election, the Bushies are covering their backsides, in case they, too, might be missing a wave no one else has yet identified.

To date, the conventional wisdom appears credible. (And it sure pains me to say that.) Reporting on a poll assessing the public mood, The Wall Street Journal noted, "the bottom line: The public is anxious but not angry." As one consultant told me, "When people are angry they want to go out and vote against someone. When they are anxious, they want to go to bed and pull the covers over their head." Bush and the GOPers will be quite happy if on November 5 Americans reach for blankets rather than ballots. (A fundamental rule of US politics is that Republicans benefit from low turn-out.)

But as the one-week-to-go mark approaches, the White House has become more worried that economic concerns could offer Democrats last-minute traction and that the elections could turn in a sudden and unforseen way. Expect Bush to talk about jobs, medicine, and pensions more than Saddam Hussein, as he campaigns around the country in the run-up to November 5.

So the nation is politically divided on a razor's edge, essentially 50-50 in the House and Senate, with the Republicans needing one seat in the Senate to return to power there, and the Democrats requiring seven seats to reclaim the House, and as we hit the home stretch in a neck-and-neck race, the campaign is ... pretty boring.

I blame the Democrats mostly for this. Sure, they're running ads attacking GOPers for scheming to destroy Social Security, and they're speechifying about how bad the economy is and blaming Bush. (Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle even demanded that Bush revamp his economic team. How bold!) But they have little in the way of an overarching economic message. They whack Bush for turning surpluses into deficits, but by and large they refuse to address a primary cause -- Bush's millionaire-friendly tax cuts.

They are too scared to call for suspending Bush's tax cuts, believing that would provide the GOPers an opening to assail them as tax-hikers. That is, they self-emasculate to prevent an Orwellian counter-attack. (Another problem: A fair number of Senate Democrats voted for Bush's tax cuts.) House minority leader Richard Gephardt did get around to offering somewhat of an economic plan after the war-resolution vote, but the Democrats mostly have been relying on a lousy economy to do their work -- waiting for bad economic news that motivates Americans to vote Democrat.

This waiting-for-your-401(k)-statement strategy does not make for too interesting a tale, and one can almost forgive news people for fixating on the sniper at the expense of a campaign in which Democrats skip past the tax cuts controversy and, instead, try to turn pension reform into a defining issue. What ends up intriguing the political press are questions of campaign mechanics and tactics ( Business Week notes that both parties have raised a combined $487.7 million on the 2002 elections so far, topping the $450 million raised two years ago) and guessing who's up/who's down. Not what "matters."

Will a state and federal investigation into the Democratic Party's attempt to register Native Americans in South Dakota tip that state's close Senate race to the Republicans? (Remember, a change of one seat could flip the Senate.) Will a drug industry ad effort in favor of Republicans help the GOP's House candidates? Will the Democrats' switcheroo in New Jersey -- replacing the ethics-challenged Senator Bob Torricelli with former Senator Frank Lautenberg -- pay off? Will Colorado voters go for the Qwest-friendly incumbent, Senator Wayne Allard, or the Global Crossing-friendly opponent, Ted Strickland?

A lot rides on this election. Corporate lobbyists in Washington have already prepared a Christmas wish-list, in optimistic anticipation of the Republicans bagging the one seat they need in the Senate. The list is no surprise: more tax cuts, deregulation, and -- their equivalent of a pony -- major tort reform.

Conservative and Republican activists are especially praying for Republican Representative Jim Talent to defeat Democratic Senator Jean Carnahan in Missouri, for the two of them are squaring off in a special election. If Talent wins, he could be sworn in immediately -- rather than in January with the rest of the new members. (Due to the tragic death of senator Paul Wellstone, who was in a tight race for Minnesota, another scenario of this sort is possible). And the Senate would be under GOP control for the scheduled lame-duck session. During that time, Republicans might try to approve judicial nominations the Democrats have blocked. By the way, there appears to be no one in Washington -- not even Democratic House members -- who believes the Democrats can win back the House.

If you're just tuning in, welcome to the abbreviated and uninspiring campaign of 2002. No big story. Not much meaning. Not much attention. Yet plenty of consequences.

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