Bush: The Long Goodbye; the Political Tide Is Rising for the Democrats as America's Voters Tire of a Regime Stained by Scandal and the Blood Spilt in Iraq. but Even If They Do Seize Control of Congress in November, the President Will Remain Intransigent. Our US Editor, Andrew Stephen, Reports

Article excerpt

Josh Bolten--White House chief of staff and official keeper of secrets for President George W Bush--told me the other day that he has bought "countdown clocks" for his desk and those of senior colleagues at the White House. They relentlessly tick off the days, hours, minutes and seconds until noon on 20 January 2009, when Bush will finally leave 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. By my calculation, Josh's clocks will show 804 days, three hours and 45 minutes at precisely 8.15 on the morning of Wednesday 8 November.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

That date is not chosen at random: for the Bush administration, it will be the morning after the night before, when perhaps 125 million Americans will have cast their votes in the 2006 midterm elections and delivered their most definitive verdict yet on the 43rd US presidency. Will the Democrats have won a landslide victory, giving them control of Congress next January for the first time in 12 years? Will that rein Bush in, or increase his boneheaded obduracy over Iraq and everything else? Will the Democrats then declare outright war on Bush in revenge for everything he's doing?

We can be certain of only one thing: the results that morning will have a profound effect on America and the world, not only for those 804 days of Bush left, but perhaps for decades to come. Besides getting ever closer to the chilling prospect of his final mad days in the bunker, we will see Republican and Democratic presidential candidates for 2008 duck and weave, changing policies and tactics as they try to fit in to the new political landscape. Iraq, Afghanistan, anti-terrorism, healthcare, the economy, social security, tax: all will be affected by what voters decide on 7 November, making this year's midterm elections the most significant in US political history.

A month ago, the outlook was of a trickle towards the Democrats; now it is a surge--propelled not just by a storm of Bush hatred that is gaining momentum, but by random events such as the pathetic "sex scandal" of the now former congressman Mark Foley. In the latest Newsweek poll, 55 per cent of likely voters say they want a Democrat-controlled Congress, compared to just 37 per cent planning to stick with the Republicans. In the House, the Republicans hold 230 seats and the Democrats 201, while the Republicans control the Senate by 55-45. With all 435 seats in the House and 33 in the Senate up for election this year, the Democrats need to take just 15 House and six Senate seats from the Republicans.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

So, yes, there could well be a landslide and the blood may start flowing between Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue. But domestic American politics and its complex, gerrymandered systems make the obstacles to change much higher: the Democrats need not just an anti-Bush storm on 7 November, but a hurricane. Those Newsweek figures may seem to clinch it, but overall the poll translates into the Democrats regaining just 17 House seats and leaving the Senate on a knife-edge.

If voting were to take place on the day I am writing this, I would predict 34 House seats and five (possibly six) in the Senate shifting to the Democrats. But hurricanes can gather momentum or they can subside to small gusts; the mood in America is so fickle that, in the few days left, either could happen. Bush and Karl Rove are said to be "upbeat" and even "fired up"; a veteran of the Reagan and first Bush administrations, meanwhile, confessed that, for the first time, "being a Republican, I could just weep right now". Polls show that 84 per cent of the US public know who poor Foley is. That is a higher recognition figure than many presidential candidates get.

Bush and Rove, however, are as ruthless and politically amoral as ever--while the Democrats remain infuriatingly feckless. There has been a stream of unparalleled fiascos: Iraq (going "remarkably well", as Dick Cheney said the other day), Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina, Jack Abramoff, Terri Schiavo, Harriet Miers, corruption outrages (two former Republican congressmen are in jail and several more, including Bob Ney, who still sits in Congress, are heading there) and various ludicrous sex scandals. …