By DAN K. THOMASSON
Amidst all the election season Sturm und Drang about who is responsible for the failure to eliminate Osama bin Laden and the continuing sectarian violence in Iraq, one salient fact is emerging: Americans are more likely to consider gas prices when they enter the polling booth this November.
And the fact those prices have been falling from record highs seems to have produced a ray of sunshine in the rather dismal Republican outlook for retaining control of Congress.
A sage observer of national political trends once explained that when all is said and done, U.S. elections always turn on the economy. Whatever else may seem important beforehand, he said, Americans vote their pocketbooks. If that climate is good, the candidate in office always has a leg up unless he is incredibly inept. Two examples of that exception: Al Gore in 2000 and the current campaign of Republican Sen. George Allen in Virginia, who has gone from a sure bet to even odds because of a major public faux pas or two.
Even New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a probable horse in the Democratic presidential nominating race in 2008, says that in his travels on behalf of his party’s gubernatorial candidates, the number one issue he has found is energy independence, with national security second. While that crosses into the foreign policy field, it really translates to how much has to be shelled out at the service station.
Not only have the pump prices of gasoline fallen dramatically _ and the expectation is they will continue to decline _ but the economy generally is solidly upbeat with the stock markets pushing records and inflation apparently in check. The one dark spot is the housing market. But optimists note that although the bubble seems to have burst, those who have owned their homes for some time have had the benefit of years of strong appreciation to offset lower than expected sale prices. Buyers are also better off.
Also bolstering GOP fortunes is the claim, backed up by polls, that President Bush’s campaign to paint Iraq as just another front in the war on terror has had some positive impact, even with the release of portions of a National Intelligence Estimate saying the war has been a rallying point for Muslim extremists worldwide. That is offset by the multi-agency report’s contention that Jihadists view Iraq as a test of U.S. will. Losing that fight would damage their cause everywhere.
As far as the blame game is concerned, all but the most irrational voters on both extremes of the left and right are wise enough to understand that the intelligence failures leading to the 9/11 attack on America stretch back a long way. President Clinton clearly missed multiple opportunities to deal with bin Laden and al Qaeda during the two terms he was president no matter what he says. Did the newly-installed Bush administration make mistakes? Probably. But it had hardly gotten its feet on the ground in the eight months before the 9/11 disaster. Iraq, of course, is a different story.
None of the finger pointing is particularly productive. It is, however, the natural way of politics _ certainly the American variety. I asked a good friend and moderate Republican who had served both in the House and Senate whether he felt his party’s chances had improved in the last few weeks. He said he now gave the GOP a little better than a 50-50 chance of staying alive in both houses. Why? Because of gas prices, he said, echoing the mantra of other observers.
So with the economy at least rated good and national security bending a tick toward the president’s positions, the urgency to throw the rascals out at any cost seems to have abated despite the shrill attacks of Democratic leaders in Congress. Adding to the brightening prospects for the GOP is the lack of a coherent, overall Democratic Party platform. On a variety of issues, the Democrats simply have no concrete solutions that would assure voters there is overpowering reason for change other than for the sake of change. Richardson, chairman of the Democratic Governors’ Association, conceded to reporters the other day that so far the party has not developed strong alternatives.
Thus, the prospect of one of those mindless landslides based on overwhelming voter anger at the party in charge apparently has morphed from a sure bet into too-close-to-call, primarily because of gas prices that permit filling the tank without applying for a loan.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)