A year ago, George W. Bush said the voters of America had given him political capital that he intended to spend pursuing his agenda. While it’s always dangerous to read national lessons into local elections, everyone from political consultants to the leaders of countries in the remote corners of Asia and Africa are going to assume the same thing from the results of yesterday’s balloting: Mr. Bush’s political capital has turned into a deficit.
The election of Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine in Virginia was a surprise. Virginia has a Democratic governor now, but in national politics it is a safe Republican state. President Bush made a much-publicized last-minute campaign stop there to stump for the Republican, Jerry Kilgore. Everyone who has to make a decision about next year’s Congressional elections – from promising candidates who are mulling whether to listen to their party’s pleas to run to campaign donors – are reading bad omens for the Republicans into what happened after Mr. Bush left.
Can Bush turn it around and save his presidency?
All that could easily change. Mr. Bush could be the catalyst for change, if he had the flexibility and imagination to read the nation’s mood. Whenever this president has gotten into trouble in the past, he has reflexively turned to his right-wing base, or his trump issue of antiterrorism and homeland security. That isn’t working now. In Mr. Bush’s last crisis, over Hurricane Katrina, he made a desperate grab for popularity in the form of sweeping promises of enormous spending to rebuild New Orleans – promises that frightened his party. He is already in the process of backtracking on them.
Big surprise. Not.
With President Bush buffeted by low job-approval ratings, declining public support for his Iraq war policy and a federal CIA leak investigation that has reached into the White House, the Virginia governor’s race was being watched for any signs that the Republican administration’s difficulties were rubbing off at the local level. Long considered a reliable Republican state in national politics, Virginia has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in more than 40 years, and Bush won handily in last year’s presidential election with 54 percent of the vote.
It would be a mistake to look at today’s elections only as a referendum on Bush. I don’t know how much anti-Bush sentiment factored into the New Jersey election, although Corzine did run ads linking Forrester to Bush (ouch!). Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s re-election in New York City certainly doesn’t mean New Yorkers are tilting Republican. Bloomberg is a true RINO and more liberal than a lot of Democrats. New Yorkers understand the party affiliation has more to do with political expediency than ideology.
But I’d hate to be a Republican campaign strategist tonight, huh?