Mid-term polls in US will be historic - or will they?

Business Times - 21 Oct 2010

Mid-term polls in US will be historic - or will they?


TO hear it said in the US mass media, the coming US mid-term elections will produce a 'political earthquake', or least an 'electoral shake-up', and it is going to be a 'historic election' on Nov 2. One could be excused for concluding that the United States is on the eve of a major political upheaval that would transform American society and politics as we know it.

The possibility that the Republicans, allied with the Tea Party insurgents, may regain control of the House of Representatives - and perhaps even the Senate - is being depicted by pundits as the first stage of a populist revolution. Angry Americans armed with pitchforks and torches are about to storm the fortress on Capitol Hill. And their next target is the White House. Fasten your seat-belts; it's going to be a bumpy ride!

Well, not so fast. That the current occupant of the White House at the end of the second year of his first term in office has lost public support and that the opposition party is exploiting that opportunity and is going to make big gains in the races for the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, to 34 of the 100 seats in the Senate, as well to 34 of the 50 races for state governorships - is certainly not that surprising.

There is a familiar pattern to the mid-term elections. The electorate uses the election as an opportunity to lay blame at the doorstep of the ruling political party, even if the president from that party has been only two years in office. Blame that on the short attention span of the American voters and on the difficulty of persuading that things could have actually been worse if not for the policies of the new presidents. After all, two very popular presidents who ended-up serving their full two terms in the White House together with their respective political parties had to contend with very similar electoral backlashes from angry voters after two years in office.

On the eve of the 1994 mid-term elections, Democratic President Bill Clinton's poll numbers were actually lower than those of Mr Obama's this year. Indeed, the Democrats lost 54 seats in the House and eight in the Senate in the 1994 mid- terms, with Republicans regaining control over Congress.

And Republican populist insurgents that sounded not unlike the current tea partiers and who were led by the new Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich had pledged to launch a major transformation of the American political and economic system, and to create the conditions for a huge Republican victory in the 1996 presidential and Congressional elections.

But then Mr Clinton won re-election two years later, carrying 31 states and Washington DC.

Similarly, in November 1982, Republican President Ronald Reagan was in his first term in the White House when the Democrats picked up 27 seats in the House of Representatives - taking a 269-166 advantage over the Republicans, gaining one seat in the Senate and winning the governorship in seven additional states. Two years later, Mr Reagan marched towards victory over Democrat Walter Mondale. And in 1986, the mid-term elections hit Mr Reagan hard again.

Interestingly enough, the electoral defeat of the Democrats in the 1994 mid-term elections occurred at a time when the American economy under Mr Clinton was doing well, with unemployment almost half of what it is today. With the economic conditions continuing to improve during the next six years, Mr Clinton succeeded in portraying Mr Gingrich and the Republicans as obstacles to economic progress while forming alliances with moderate Republicans over issues like global trade and welfare reform.

After two years in office and being in charge of the miserable economic conditions he had inherited from his predecessor, with unemployment reaching 10 per cent, Mr Reagan was in a similar position to that of Democrat President Obama today. In the next two years, Mr Reagan succeeded in promoting his transformative economic and social agenda that helped create the environment for a successful economic recovery. Mr Reagan's 1984 election slogan, 'It's morning in America', seemed to capture the renewed optimism of the American people.

So even if the Democrats suffer huge electoral defeat in the coming mid-term elections, Mr Obama may still be in a position to pull out a 'Clinton' and/or a 'Reagan' in the next two years. Like Mr Clinton, he could bash Republican obstructionism while at the same time, try working with some of the more centrist Republicans to help pass legislation on trade and education and controlling the deficit.

And if the Obama administration's economic programme finally starts getting the economy to move forward in the next two years - a big 'if' but not an impossibility - Mr Obama, not unlike Mr Reagan, may have a chance to boast: 'It's morning in America.'

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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