Crises Create a Political Whiplash ; War on Terrorism and Financial Malaise Pull Voters in Different Directions as Parties Try to Capitalize on Events
Liz Marlantes writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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. …