The battle for Congress

Except for a quick trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, for a meeting of the Asia-- Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, President Bush has been campaigning full-time for more than two weeks in an effort to gain Republican control of both houses of Congress. On Tuesday night, we'll find out whether he succeeded.

At present, Republicans control the 435-member House of Representatives by only six seats while Democrats hold a one-vote margin in the Senate; but only two days before the election, both contests are too close to call.

The Senate race was further complicated by the ethics-related resignation of Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., last month and the Oct. 25 death of Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., in a Minnesota plane crash.

Ironically, those untimely events might help Democrats retain control of the Senate since the last-minute replacement candidates, former Sen. Frank Lautenberg and ex-Vice President Walter Mondale, respectively, are favored to defeat their lesser-known GOP rivals.

What strikes me about this year's national election is that party labels don't mean much any more. Years ago, many Americans voted "straight tickets" as they maintained strict party loyalty. But today, most voters choose their candidates on the basis of personalities or issues rather than party affiliations. When I voted early last week, for example, I split my ballot 50-50 between the two major parties, and I'm probably the rule rather than the exception -- in Nevada at least, where voters pay little attention to party labels.

It won't surprise anyone to learn that President Bush and the Republicans are talking about Iraq and the War on Terrorism while Democrats focus on domestic issues like the economy, Medicare drug benefits and the protection of Social Security. For most of the campaign, Republicans have had the upper hand, thanks to national security issues and the president's relatively high (but declining) approval ratings. But on the economy, Democrats have leveled the following charges against Bush and the GOP:

-- Two million jobs lost in the private sector since "Dubya" became president.

-- An additional 1.4 million people without health insurance, and some 1.3 million more Americans living below the poverty line.

-- Short-term unemployment up two percent and long-term unemployment almost doubled.

-- Overall economic growth at one percent, the lowest for any administration in 50 years.

-- The value of Americans' stock holdings down $4.5 trillion and a 30 percent drop in the value of IRAs and 401(k) plans. (Personal comment: Ouch!).

-- A projected budget surplus of $5.6 trillion converted into a deficit of $400 billion.

-- And 45 of the 50 states (including Nevada) struggling with budget problems that are forcing program cuts and/or higher taxes.

That's a serious indictment of the Bush administration's stewardship of the national economy, but is anyone talking about it? Thanks to Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and the Beltway snipers, our attention is elsewhere. And that's a shame because try as they might, Democrats have been unable to shift the mid-term election debate from national security to the economy. As veteran Washington Post columnist David Broder wrote last week, "If anyone were listening, Republicans would have to come up with explanations or rebuttals (but) it isn't a subject the White House is eager to discuss."

For their part, Broder added, Republicans argue that "Democrats have no alternative economic plan and the Senate never even passed a budget this year." And furthermore, Democrats "are all wet in starting their (economic) clock on the day Bush took office" because during the Clinton years "an unhealthy and unsustainable 'bubble' developed in the economy" that inflated markets and caused people to take foolish risks with their investments and household budgets. It would have been a worthwhile election-year debate but unfortunately, it never happened.

"By moving Iraq to political center stage, Republicans have derailed Democratic efforts to make the campaign about the economy, the falling stock market and corporate irresponsibility," wrote another Post columnist, E.J. Dionne Jr. "Republicans are joyous in the knowledge that when elections are about foreign policy, Democrats usually lose." Recent polls show that even though President Bush's overall approval ratings hover around 60 percent, less than half of the voters approve of his handling of the economy.

But voters still believe Republicans are best equipped to combat international terrorism and to conduct a possible war against Iraq, which probably means that the GOP will retain control of the House and have a shot at a Senate majority.

We'll have definitive answers on Tuesday, when I hope to see you at the polls.

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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