America - Andrew Stephen analyses the American elections

The Democrats gave the Republicans a free ride in the mid-term elections: their leaders were so inep

They are, someone on television was trumpeting, the most important mid-term elections of our lifetime. And so, last Tuesday, history was indeed duly made. Despite a disgracefully low turnout of around 36 per cent, a triumphalist Bush administration enjoyed a series of unprecedented and resounding electoral victories. Not since 1932 has a sitting president seen his party's congressional tallies increase in his first mid-term elections; and it has never happened for a Republican president. Not only did Jeb Bush win a symbolically decisive victory as governor of Florida, but the Republicans increased their hold on the House and wrested control of the Senate from the Democrats: that, in particular, is a change of power in Washington the importance of which cannot be exaggerated. President Bush was up way past his 9pm bedtime, busily phoning his congratulations to victorious Republican candidates and even taking his two dogs for a midnight walk in the White House grounds.

Thus the floodgates will soon be open for the most right-wing president of modern times to push hitherto logjammed legislation through a compliant Senate. His proposed $60bn Department of Homeland Security - stuck in the Senate for almost a year because Bush insists its employees cannot belong to a civil service union - will now sail through. So will a plethora of right-wing federal judges whose appointments the Democrats refused to confirm. And the biggest gift of all now lies in Bush's hands: he will be able to appoint Supreme Court justices, whose tenure lasts a lifetime and who decide the nation's policies on issues such as abortion and capital punishment. The court currently has a 5-4 right-wing majority, and at least two of the right-wing judges have postponed their retirements because a Democratic Senate would not approve right-wing replacements; now the door is open for Bush to entrench the right-wing majority of the Supreme Court for the next four decades or so.

We always knew the mid-term elections had the potential of being this important. All 435 House seats and 34 of 100 Senate places were contested, along with 36 of the nation's 50 governorships; in local state elections, 7,500 offices were filled. Throw in 208 referendums in 38 states, on everything from legalising marijuana to same-sex marriages, and you realise that Americans had the chance to swing the country violently in one

political direction or the other. But the results of the 2002 elections,

when closely analysed, show that the United States is still every bit as politically divided as it was when Al Gore won the popular vote for the presidency two years ago: of the 435 House contests, the outcomes of fewer than 20 were ever in doubt; and the Senate takeover hinged on about half a dozen Senate races.

A typical Republican victory last Tuesday was that of one Saxby Chambliss, who will now become Senator for Georgia. The incumbent, Senator Max Cleland, is currently seen around the Senate in a wheelchair: in Vietnam, he lost both legs and an arm. But that did not stop Chambliss putting out an ad featuring Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, suggesting that Cleland's vote against Bush's no-unions plan for the Department of Homeland Security was unpatriotic. We thus had a man who had evaded military service all his life - Chambliss - smearing the patriotism of a man who had lost three limbs in military action for his country. But the mud stuck, Chambliss gained traction, and won by 56-47.

Why the low turnout and the vote reinforcing Republican control? I believe there are several reasons, but the most important was last year's 11 September atrocities. America was collectively traumatised; partisan politics was effectively suspended, and a president whose approval ratings were at a record low so early in a presidency suddenly became the nation's saviour. For all of 2002, Bush has been busily waving the flag for the Republicans (and raising more than $140m for their campaigns): in the three weeks before polling day he embarked on an unprecedentedly intense bout of presidential mid-term electioneering, and in the five days leading up to last Tuesday, barnstormed his cavalcade through no fewer than 15 states (all courtesy of Air Force One and the US taxpayer). He showed no reluctance at any of his stopovers to play the 11 September patriotic card: "I need his/her help", was his mantra in support of Republican candidates, referring always to the war against terrorism and making America a safer place.

It was, admittedly, a hard act to compete against - but the Democrats failed, miserably, to rise to the occasion. The brief resurfacing of Walter Mondale, 74-year-old former vice-president - drafted in unsuccessfully to fight for a Senate seat in Minneapolis after the incumbent, Senator Paul Wellstone, was killed in a plane crash 11 days before the election - brought home just how homogenised and lightweight the American domestic political scene has become. Focus-group-driven Democrats facing re-election voted for Bush's $1.3 trillion tax cut and only one seeking re-election - the late Wellstone - dared to vote against the White House on Iraq. By far the biggest Democratic star on the election circuit in the last month has been Bill Clinton, which says it all.

So where has the Democratic leadership been? The leader of what was the Democratic majority in the Senate, 54-year-old Tom Daschle, has all the charisma of a snuffed-out candle. The minority leader in the House, Dick Gephardt, 61, is a serious Democratic candidate for the presidency in 2004 - but he has already failed at that, as long ago as 1988. The only heavyweight Democrat politician still active is Senator Ted Kennedy. But he is already into his eighth decade and, besides, the focus groups say he is far too left-wing to stump for the stiflingly boring and safely centrist generation of Democrats now seeking seats.

The ineffectualness of Daschle was such that his protege and fellow senator from South Dakota, Tim Johnson, was, as we went to press, struggling to survive against a candidate hand-picked by the White House, with the result depending on a few hundred votes either way. Bush campaigned more than once in the state - the first time a president has even set foot in South Dakota since FDR went there in 1936. But a couple of visits by Air Force One was enough to leave Daschle facing humiliation in his own backwoods, and to hand the President the possibility of another symbolic victory, to go along with Jeb Bush's victory in Florida. "I'm going to have to take some responsibility," was Daschle's lame reaction to the prospect of an electoral debacle.

So inept was the performance of Daschle and the Democratic leadership that they could be accused of electoral malpractice: following a summer that saw both the stock market plunge and widespread examples of corporate malfeasance (such as the stupendous frauds of Enron), you would think that the likes of Daschle and Gephardt could have energised the country over the state of the economy under Bush. But they couldn't, or wouldn't. The Republicans got a largely free ride. Instead, Democrats tried to hijack traditionally Republican ground and Republicans the Democrat ground, which was the strategy the pollsters dictated. The most egregious example was the incumbent Republican Senator of Arkansas, Tim Hutchinson: he rated social security, prescription drug prices and healthcare as among his top ten concerns, stepping firmly on to Democratic turf. Unluckily for a candidate standing in the southern Bible Belt, though, he also happened to have been through a messy divorce four years ago: he lost in what was one of the night's rare electoral aberrations.

The only ray of light for the Democrats was that they picked up some governorships from the Republicans, though Kathleen Kennedy Townsend - Bobby Kennedy's eldest child - lost Maryland. Governors can help organise the grassroots in the states for the 2004 presidential election, which is a consolatory plus for the Democrats. The other glimmer of satisfaction for them is that Bush will not be able to blame the Democrats if the economy or war with Iraq goes badly. But then the Democrats will have to clean up their act swiftly if their candidate - Al Gore again? Senator John Edwards? - is to stand a chance of making Bush the one-term president everyone thought he was on 10 September last year.

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