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20 November 2006

Runners and riders in the real battle ahead

The Democrats are preparing to flex their muscles in Congress against George Bush. But both parties

By Andrew Stephen

So who was the winner in the elections? Nancy Pelosi, the 66-year-old who will be speaker of the House after 3 January? Representative Jack Murtha, the 74-year-old former Vietnam hero who dared to speak up against the war in Iraq and whom Pelosi has appointed Democratic leader of the House? Robert Gates, 63, current president of the overwhelmingly white Texas A&M university and former disastrous director of the CIA, who was mixed up to his neck in the Iran-Contra scandals but who has now deposed poor Rummy as defence secretary?

No. The winner, I believe, was another oldie: John McCain, the 70-year-old current front runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 (yes, that would make him 72 should he be elected president – three years older than Reagan was when he was elected in 1981). I give the “responsible bipartisan government” pledge of Pelosi and Bush three months at most, whence McCain will be free to rail not only against Bush’s calamitous presidency – as NS readers have long known, he harbours a visceral personal contempt for Bush – but also against those obstructionist, incompetent Democrats who by then will have taken over Capitol Hill.

Before even the Diebold voting machines were cold, I predicted that internecine warfare would soon erupt among the Democrats – and the person with most to gain from that will be McCain (or whoever the Republican nominee turns out to be), just as it could become a curse for Senator Hillary Clinton (ditto). The 2006 midterms, after all, were in effect the first crucial event of what will be the historic 2008 presidential campaign: assuming that Dick Cheney keeps his word not to run, the ’08 election will be the first time since 1928 that no incumbent president or vice-president will be candidates.

If proof was needed that the 2008 race has already begun, two serious possible candidates – Senator Russell Feingold and former governor Mark Warner, both Democrats intimidated by the seemingly unstoppable Hillary – have already withdrawn from it. Similarly, Senator George Allen – like Warner, a former governor of Virginia and favoured by many Republicans as offering an alternative to McCain’s maverick politics – is out of the picture after botching his 2006 campaign and losing his Senate seat to Jim Webb, 60, another Vietnam war hero (and also long-term personal foe of Gates, incidentally, who will probably now become Gates’s tormentor-in-chief as the new chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee).

Serious analyses of the results confirm my contention last week that they were by no means a triumph for the Democrats. Had just 4,000 voted differently, the Democrats would have gained only four new Senate seats and thus not have control. In the House, the Democrats hold a 33-seat majority as I write, yet 23 races were determined by two percentage points or less; of the 28 seats the Republicans lost to Democrats, ten can be attributed to personal scandals.

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All of which is good news to McCain in particular, because his brand of populism – espousing policies that range from enlightened to far-right – is one that cuts across conventional party and geographic lines. Should the midterm voting patterns and exit-poll data be replicated in 2008, McCain would stand a fighting chance in traditionally Democratic states such as Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin. Even California would not be out of the question – to say nothing of the two critical bellwether states of 2000 and 2004, Florida and Ohio. Interestingly, McCain has asked General Barry McCaffrey, Bill Clinton’s “drug czar,” to be an adviser.

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Victory in those last two states alone would therefore probably hand the 44th US presidency to a 72-year-old grandfather. McCain has been doing all the right things, too: despite his evisceration by Karl Rove’s vicious dirty tricks in the 2000 primaries, and his resulting hatred of Bush, McCain has held his nose and campaigned for the 43rd president and his Republican supporters across the country. Just in the midterm cycle alone, McCain attended 346 campaign events and raised more than $10.5m for party coffers. He is an assiduous wooer of journalists, making each one he meets believe he or she is a personal friend. But even he is going to find it increasingly hard to justify his stance that the US should be sending more troops to Iraq.

Polls show that 62-year-old Rudy Giuliani, the former Republican mayor of New York who showed real courage on 11 September 2001, while Bush cowed in Air Force One, is McCain’s main challenger. He, too, is definitely intending to run. But I suspect Giuliani will be scuppered by his support for abortion rights, gun control, gay liberation, and his own messy personal life. (Don’t think I’m being ageist, by the way: I just happen to think the age of America’s ruling politicians is a striking and unnoticed new phenomenon.)

McCain will dominate the landscape over the next two years, but something tells me he won’t, in the end, make it. My tip on the Republican to watch – remember, you read it here first – is the outgoing governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, a stripling of 59 who I predict may become the dark horse. He is pro-death penalty, anti-gay marriage, and so on; his one electoral drawback is that he is a Mormon. (I have an even hotter tip about who his running mate might just be: step forward Jeb Bush, Dubbya’s youngest but much brighter brother who will soon be out of a job.)

Feet to the fire

Back on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, the pressures on Pelosi are already mounting. Traditional Democrats long deprived of a voice in Washington are assuming, mostly misguidedly, that they will now be heard again. Caroline Fredrickson, Washington legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union, says “we will hold [the congressional Democrats’] feet to the fire” to repeal parts of the Patriot Act and make eavesdropping on Americans illegal. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the AFL-CIO: all now expect action. “It’s been kind of a drought for 12 years, and there’s some pent-up energy,” explains Bill Samuel of the AFL-CIO.

I’m told that Bush’s first public concession to the Democrats will be to cede to their demands to raise the minimum wage, currently $5.15 per hour. But there will then be little or no backing down on, say, the Patriot Act or eavesdropping; that will take us quickly back to the “Democrats are wimps when it comes to your security” mantra. The Democratic Senate, meanwhile, will give Gates an exceedingly hard time on his Iran-Contra past in his confirmation hearings, but will probably ultimately approve his appointment; but they will almost certainly block that of John Bolton, the less-than-lovable temporary US ambassador to the UN.

I was right when I suggested that Rummy would be sacked, but wrong about his putative successor. Might it now be that if (or, more likely, when) Bolton’s appointment is rejected by the Senate, Bush will invite Senator Joe Lieberman to take that job? It would be delicious revenge for Bush: he would have a pro-Israel, pro-Iraq war hawk in place in Manhattan and Lieberman’s absence from the Senate would probably end up resulting in an evenly split Senate, with Cheney (as the normally theoretical Senate chair) having the decisive casting vote.

I suspect that, in the meantime, little can now stop the Hillary juggernaut heading towards the Democratic nomination in 2008. But just as the 2006 midterm-election results probably helped McCain or Romney, or whoever the Republican presidential candidate will be, so they may have handicapped Hillary’s prospects. The Republicans would love nothing more than to force her to defend bickering congressional Democrats, whom they can portray as obstructing a beatific Republican president merely trying to do good in his final days; I can almost see Rove rubbing his hands and cackling with glee at the prospect.

For Hillary, too, history shows that senators are hardly ever successful presidential candidates. Just two out of 43 – JFK and Warren Harding, possibly the only US president in history worse than the current one – have succeeded in becoming president. Senator Clinton, none the less, dispelled some abiding myths when she romped home with a whopping 67 per cent of the vote in New York in the midterms; she showed once and for all that she is a heavyweight politician in her own right and who, far from being the divisive hate-figure the media has long-since portrayed her as being, is actually popular with the electorate. While campaigning, she also managed to raise a cool $29.5m to boot.

Hold on to your hats, then, for the next 100 days and beyond. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group, set up by Congress only last spring and now benefiting from the wisdom of our dear Prime Minister, will deliver its recommendations before Christmas. Meanwhile, the scent of blood is everywhere in Washington; we’re headed for a wild ride. And the frantic manoeuvring going on behind the scenes in Washington now will almost certainly decide who the occupant of the White House will be until 2013, if not 2017. A sobering thought.

My favourite Republican scandal of the week, for which I am indebted to the Las Vegas Sun: police have subpoenaed the phone records of (61-year-old) governor-elect Jim Gibbons of Nevada, a five-term congressman accused of sexual assault by a “32-year-old single mother and cocktail waitress”. The woman claims that Gibbons grabbed her arms and threw her against a wall in a parking garage before demanding sex. Gibbons has a perfectly convincing explanation: that the woman stumbled as he walked her back to her truck, and he grabbed her to stop her falling. “I learned an important lesson, never to offer a helping hand to anybody ever again,” says the man who will become Nevada’s governor next January. Quite right, too.

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