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US: Mid-term Lessons

Mid-term Lessons The recent mid-term elections that saw the democrats seize control of both the house of representatives and the senate marks a shift in US politics. It was an election marked by a noticeable concern with wider national and even international issues, such as Iraq, unlike elections of the recent past that were driven by local concerns and were also personality- based. The democrat majority was secured with their victory in 230 seats in the house of representatives; the race for the senate was tighter, and democrat lead was ensured only when their nominees in Virginia and Montana won.

US

Mid-term Lessons

T
he recent mid-term elections that saw the democrats seize control of both the house of representatives and the senate marks a shift in US politics. It was an election marked by a noticeable concern with wider national and even international issues, such as Iraq, unlike elections of the recent past that were driven by local concerns and were also personality-based. The democrat majority was secured with their victory in 230 seats in the house of representatives; the race for the senate was tighter, and democrat lead was ensured only when their nominees in Virginia and Montana won.

The present situation has a certain familiarity with what prevailed in 1994: A time when the republicans swept to power in a near identical situation, and virtually stymied some of then president Clinton’s sweeping reform plans, especially in healthcare. As opinion and exit polls have suggested, this year’s polls were driven substantially by the unravelling of the Iraq campaign. The growing public disenchantment with the sanguine calculations projected by the Bush administration, the rising American casualties as well as the unabated sectarian violence in Iraq were all highlighted in the run-up to the elections. Several war veterans critical of the Bush administration’s efforts on Iraq also contested on a democratic platform. And in what was indeed an admission of failure and defeat, one of president George W Bush’s first steps, postelection, was to announce a new defence secretary, Robert Gates, in place of Donald Rumsfeld. With the democrats in charge of both houses, it remains to be seen, however, what kind of “new perspective” would now be followed in Iraq. Though foreign policy remains a purview of the president, the democrats now in control of senate committees could make things difficult.

The democrats benefited from the tide of rising resentment against the republicans – reflected in the corruption and other scandals that have plagued the administration, and also its inability to deliver on its promises, especially those expected by its key support base. Domestic issues, such as the state of the economy, taxes, medical care benefits, did play a role in drawing many “swing voters”, i e, those who had voted republican in the 2004 presidential elections. Exit polls revealed a reduced percentage of married women, suburban voters, and those in the middle income groups voting republican, as compared to 2004. One plausible analysis of the outcome is that it was an election that the democrats won more because they highlighted the republicans’ failings than with any positive programme of their own. What is significant though is that what seemed like a republican/conservative gridlock on power has now been shattered.

Post-election, there is talk of “cooperation” between the democrats and the republicans, but both sides have lessons to draw from these elections. While the republicans have been chastened, and the Bush administration diminished in its defeat, several democrat candidates moved to a more “centrist” position, so as to appeal to the more traditional republican voter. The range of voices now elected on a democrat platform has given rise to a possible “split” among them on many issues, especially those relating to climate change, trade and even stem cell research. It is how voters have responded to these “other” issues that offer some indication as to where political debate in the US could be headed in the next few years. There is a greater concern about greenhouse emissions and need to promote renewable energy resources, as also a growing debate between protectionism vs free trade. A referendum simultaneously conducted in some states also opposed the notion of “same-sex” marriages, while in South Dakota, voters overturned a ban on partial-abortions imposed some months ago.

Till the presidential elections of 2008, the US can be expected to tread a more subdued line as regards foreign policy; a negotiated approach to Iran and North Korea would be welcome. The Bush administration may even want to address the Palestine issue with more honesty than it has done in the past six years. For the next two years, the US can be expected to be more inward looking and involved with subjects that could decide the next presidency. The debate relating to, for example, the economy, climate change, as also the question of illegal immigration, i e, issues expected to figure in large part in the 2008 elections should soon then begin to fall into place. EPW

Economic and Political Weekly November 18, 2006

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