ed111502: Goodbye to 2000

COMMENTARY Political Process

ed111502: Goodbye to 2000

Nov 15th, 2002 2 min read
Lee Edwards, Ph.D.

Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought

Lee Edwards is a leading historian of American conservatism and the author or editor of 25 books.
It's been only two years since the closest and most disputed presidential election of modern American politics. Considering how far President Bush has come since those rancorous days, it feels more like a lifetime.

Determined to put 2000 behind him, Bush barnstormed for Republican candidates from Florida to South Dakota, placing his reputation on the political line. It was a gutsy gamble that paid off handsomely.

Republicans control the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives for the first time in almost 50 years. The net gain in congressional seats in a mid-term election was the first for a Republican president since 1902.

The man still derided by some as the "Accidental President" turned out to have rather lengthy coattails. Of the 23 House members he stumped for, 21 won or were leading right after Election Day. He campaigned for 16 Senate candidates; 12 won or were leading. And many of these campaigns were neck-and-neck races right up to the end.

To see the presidential effect in action, consider what happened in Georgia, where Rep. C. Saxby Chambliss managed to defeat Sen. Max Cleland, an incumbent who had never lost an election. According to Chambliss' campaign manager, few voters outside of the representative's home district had ever heard of him. But reminders that Chambliss "was the guy President Bush endorsed" were enough to wring promises of support.

Of course, traditional factors such as money, organization, issues, and the candidates themselves played a distinct role in the election. But President Bush made the difference in close senatorial races in Missouri, Georgia, and Minnesota by boosting the IQ (intensity quotient) of Republican workers and voters. And his campaigning ensured that Republicans would hold on to governorships in Florida and Texas.

Bush accomplished this not with slashing attacks on the opposition but by asking the voters to give him principled men and women with whom he could work to advance his agenda of homeland security and economic growth.

Republicans ousted a senatorial incumbent in Missouri, nearly upset the incumbent in South Dakota, and easily elected their man in Tennessee. Democrats are reduced to bragging about the return of 78-year-old Frank Lautenberg as a senator for New Jersey and the reelection of California Gov. Gray Davis, whose negatives approximate those of former Washington mayor Marion Berry. As they debate their future -- go further to the Left, stick to the Center, tilt a little to the Right? -- Democrats would do well to look to the grassroots and to the winners who will occupy the statehouses and city halls in the next several years.

But Republicans shouldn't puff themselves up like the Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. While historic, the 2002 elections weren't a sweeping mandate. They do not signify a grand alignment. The country is still largely divided between the blue coasts and the red heartland. Rather, the elections constituted a calculated go-ahead from the voters for the president to proceed with his promises to protect the homeland from terrorists and get the country moving again economically.

The election results suggest strongly that the majority of the American people have accepted the 2000 election results and want to move on. President Bush comprehended that desire, campaigned accordingly and helped produce a remarkable victory for himself and his party. Obviously, many Democrats cannot forget 2000; they spent an inordinate amount of time, money and energy in Florida trying to defeat Gov. Jeb Bush and bloody George Bush's nose. Instead, they knocked themselves out of control of the Senate.

President Bush can be expected to crank up the pressure on Iraq and al-Qaeda and craft a center-right legislative program, including the appointment of federal judges who respect the Constitution and a prudent approach to welfare issues, to persuade the electorate that their faith in him is well-placed.

It's still too soon to say how history will judge President Bush -- if he will continue to confound his critics and perhaps someday take a place alongside America's other exceptional presidents. But those who consider such an elevation highly unlikely should ask themselves what they predicted the outcome of the 2002 elections would be.

Lee Edwards, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of several books, including "The Conservative Revolution: The Movement that Remade America."