Contrary To Popular Opinion, I DO Know Jack
I'm not into name-dropping (nor could I be even if I wanted to, since I don't know very many people), but I got to meet Jack Carter, son of the former President, when he stopped by my office a few days ago. He's running for Senate against Republican John Ensign, and anyone who knows my political leanings knows I wish him well in that endeavor. If recent polling means anything then he probably won't be able to unseat Ensign, but I appreciate the effort nonetheless.
There was one thing that really struck me, though. As I came out into the lobby he was introducing himself to a co-worker of mine and he said "I'm Jack Carter, I'm running for Senate and I'M A DEMOCRAT!" He really strongly emphasized the "I'M A DEMOCRAT" part. Odd, I thought, to hear someone proclaiming that so proudly. In the past, people haven't been so exuberant in claiming that party affiliation. Right-wingers have managed to turn the word "Democrat" into something of a pejorative in much of the country, just as they have done with the word "Liberal." Many of them, even the President himself, usually won't even refer to the Democratic Party by it's proper name. Instead they call it "the Democrat Party", as though to allow even the common courtesy of the use of a proper name would somehow bestow on the Democratic Party a dignity it didn't deserve.
I could be reading too much in to Jack's bold declaration. I'm sure most Democratic candidates would, if asked, tell you that they are proud of their party affiliation even if they haven't always been overly enthusiastic in trumpeting it. But I wonder if what I heard from Jack Carter could be an indication of where things are going this year, if not in the Ensign-Carter race itself then perhaps in the country as a whole. I get the unmistakable feeling that for the first time in at least twelve years, this is not a good time to be a Republican running for office.
The Iraq war becomes more of an albatross around the necks of the ruling party every day. The Republican President's approval ratings continue to hover in the 30's, and the Republican-controlled congress is even less popular. And although Republicans and their media outlets endlessly gush about the economy, the fact is that record highs on Wall Street are not making people feel more secure: one recent poll found that a majority of likely voters in eight key states are "very" or "somewhat" worried about the direction of the economy, perhaps because despite all the alleged good news in recent weeks about a third of those in each state polled feels that they have "fallen behind" in their finances. I guess that knowing that the already-well-off are doing better than ever doesn't mean much to people struggling to live paycheck to paycheck.
Will this be a tidal wave year for the Democratic Party like 1994 was for Republicans? I doubt it. True, right now Democrats are a lot more popular than Republicans in a broad, national sense. But national mood is one thing, individual races something else entirely. Normally when people say "throw the bums out", they mean everyone else's bums, not their own bum who regularly brings home the pork. Over the years district gerrymandering and political polarization have made incumbents virtually unbeatable in most House districts. So even though the R's have left a sour taste in a lot of people's mouths after six years of unchecked rule, there probably isn't going to be a rout this year as there might have been in years past.
My fearless prognostication is that Democrats will pick up the 15 seats necessary to take control of the lower chamber of Congress, but just barely. Even thought the political middle seems to have abandoned the GOP, there's always that hard-core 30 percent or so (that's just my own ham-fisted estimate, but I think it's pretty accurate) of the population that has become much too personally identified with pseudo-populist Conservatives--and in particular with GWB himself--to even consider other alternatives. These super culture-warriors are, in their own minds, always under siege (despite having controlled the federal government for the better part of a decade) and highly motivated. Their all-encompassing focus on wedge issues, along with the Republicans' legendary get-out-the-vote apparatus, will probably be enough to turn what in past years would be a complete House massacre into a mere narrow win for Dems.
The Senate is another matter. Here the Democrats need a net gain of six seats to take control. Chances look good in four states--Montana, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania--for Democrats to unseat Republicans, and other states in which Republicans once threatened to take seats from Dems--most notably New Jersey--now seem to be leaning more solidly Blue. That would mean that Democrats need to take two of three toss-up races in Tennessee, Virginia and Missouri. All three of those races are in statistical dead heats, but I've lived in the South most of my life, and knowing the region as well as I do I just don't see Virginia and Tennessee abandoning the GOP when the chips are down (even if Harold Ford Jr. is just to the right of Joe Lieberman). That would mean that Democrats will come up one or two Senators short of a complete take-back of Congress. Still, these results would make me very happy. It would mean the significant weakening of an administration that has encountered no real opposition over the last six years as they have weakened our civil liberties, run up record deficits, made a handful of people very rich while simultaneously helping drive up the numbers of poor and uninsured, continued squeezing out the middle class, and expended vast amounts of blood and treasure in a futile attempt at what they themselves used to deride as "nation-building." President Bush and his ideology would not be gone, but he would be the walking definition of a lame duck.
A lot can happen in five days, of course. If they've proven nothing else in the last ten or twenty years, it's that no one can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory quite like the Democratic Party. Plus, don't look for the avalanche of attack ads to let up any time soon; the Republicans have been playing that game since W's father won the 1988 Presidential election on an anti-Willie Horton/pro-Pledge of Allegiance platform, and they aren't about to stop drawing water from that well until it dries up. Never (mis)underestimate the power of fear and manipulation.
Still, for the first time in I honestly can't remember how long, I feel pretty positive going into an election. And if the Republicans do manage to keep control, hey, I'm a Cub fan; crushing defeat is nothing new to me.