The near-term political fortunes of the Republican and Democratic
parties may now depend on which issue - the war on terrorism or
corporate malfeasance - dominates voter attention, and when.
For much of this year, Washington's response to the events of
last Sept. 11 has been the capital's overarching issue, boosting
President Bush's approval ratings and the electoral hopes of his
party. But lately security has been trumped by economics, as the
slumping stock market and corporate scandals have sent a shiver of
worry through working Americans - uncertainty that in the past has
typically benefited Democrats.
Now, as this fall's midterm elections approach and national
politics intensify, voters are finding their attention pulled in
both directions - at times on the same day. One minute, Mr. Bush is
releasing his sweeping new plan for homeland security. The next,
Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan is decrying "unmitigated
greed," followed by the House passing legislation toughening
penalties for corporate misdeeds.
Call it the "whiplash effect." Depending on the course of events,
coming months may well play out as a kind of tug of war, with the
two great parties that govern the nation competing to focus
attention on the category of issue they feel benefits them more.
At stake is both control of Congress and all-important initial
positioning for the presidential run of 2004.
"Ever since September, whenever it looked like we were getting
back to focusing on domestic issues, something would happen ... that
kept pulling us back [to the war on terrorism]," says Stuart
Rothenberg, a political analyst. Now, he says, "All this talk about
the stock market and the economy ... has a chance to seriously
overwhelm all the foreign policy and national security stuff."
Of course, midterm elections are often decided on the basis of
local issues rather than national ones. But with Congress so
narrowly divided, analysts say concerns about terrorism or the
economy could swing the outcome of the election - depending on which
issue emerges as dominant come November.
Democrats believe the stock market and corporate scandal will
prove the more compelling issue. They feel that while the public is
attuned to national security, voters trust the administration to
deal with it and want Congress to fix mounting domestic problems.
In addition, Democrats say they have agreed with the president on
most aspects of the terrorism war, and so voters may not see much
difference between the parties on that front. "Why is a voter in
Carbondale, Ill., going to hire or fire their congressperson based
on homeland security?" says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster.
"They don't expect to be a target. They've never met a terrorist. …