Race-Based Politics Send GOP Election Victory South

Article excerpt

Issues & Views

The Democrats were unable to counter President Bush's campaign performance with a charismatic leader or group of leaders. Nor did they communicate a coherent message based on a core set of principles.

In the waning hours of Nov. 5, President Bush and his Republican Party celebrated a dramatic election victory that recfersed the conventional wisdom that says, in midterm elections, the party that controls the White House loses seats in Congress. The GOP scored a major coup by winning back control of the U.S. Senate while expanding its slight majority in the House of Representatives.

But as he was poised to use the momentum of his win at the polls to advance his conservative agenda, Bush was blindsided by a political storm over comments made by Sen. Trent Lott (RMiss.) at the 100th birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). Opening old wounds of America's segregated past, Lott said that the country would have been better off if it had elected Thurmond president in 1948. That year, Thurmond ran for president as a States Rights candidate on a platform to preserve racial segregation and to oppose attempts to pass antilynching legislation.

The furor following Lott's remarks dominated the front pages of newspapers for more than two weeks until Lott resigned as Senate Majority Leader in December. By themselves, his comments were hurtful to millions of Americans. But Lott's remarks also cast a glaring spotlight on the Republican Party's record of racial politics and assaults on civil rights. The glare also illuminated important business that Congress had failed to finish, like fully funding education programs, extending health care to the working poor, ensuring the financial viability of Social Security and Medicare, and providing a prescription drug benefit for seniors.

As the 108th Congress gets underway, Bush administration officials and congressional Republicans hope that the election of Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) as Senate Majority Leader will deflect attention away from the Lott debacle so the president can proceed with his agenda expanding tax breaks for wealthy Americans, winning confirmation for conservative judges, building a homeland defense agency with extraordinary powers and pursuing a showdown with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Bush's Surprising Campaign Performance

A month to the day before Lott made his infamous comments, the GOP orchestrated a chain of election victories across the country that surprised many observers. Republicans now hold 51 of the 100 seats in the U.S. Senate and 229 of the 435 seats in the House. Much of the success enjoyed by Bush and his party can be attributed to the campaign skills of the president combined with a low turnout of key Democratic constituencies.

Although midterm elections are usually focused on local concerns, President Bush nationalized the campaign and he was the driving force behind many Republican contests. Bush used the prestige of the presidency to encourage attractive candidates to run for open seats and challenge vulnerable Democratic incumbents. He crisscrossed the nation campaigning for Republicans running in gubernatorial and Senate races and even for candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives. In direct, plainspoken appeals, he equated support for his policies - to combat terrorism at home and to take aggressive military action abroad - with patriotism. The drumbeat of this red, white and blue theme drowned out discussion of social concerns in many campaigns.

But the picture wasn't gloomy for all Democrats. Black representatives held their own on Capitol Hill. Of the 39 Blacks taking seats in Congress, five are new to Washington (see sidebar). But in general, the election did not go well for the Democratic Party. The Democrats were unable to counter President Bush's campaign performance with a charismatic leader or group of leaders of their own. Nor did they communicate a coherent message based on a core set of principles. …