The 2004 election is really only about one question: whether the Republican Party will enjoy thorough and unchecked power in all branches of the federal government. Despite the virtually even split in the American electorate, conservatives have every reason to expect that November will bring them total political control.
Four years ago, America had what I described in these pages as a "parliamentary election." So close was the political balance that either party had the chance to take the legislative and executive branches at the same time. And because of the surpluses built up during the preceding years of divided government, the winning party would come into office with the resources to carry out an ambitious program. It was a moment of rare historic opportunity -- and the Republicans seized it. They won the House, Senate and presidency, each by a hair, and immediately enacted a radical program of tax cuts.
In retrospect, 2000 was also a tipping-point election. Once in power, the Republicans were able to change American politics decisively in their own favor. Shrewdly managed, power begets power -- and the Republicans have been nothing if not shrewd in using power to entrench themselves. Many business interests that used to divide their contributions between the parties are now wholly invested in the Republican Party. Control of both domestic and foreign policy has allowed the party to choose initiatives to build up support at its base and appeal to new groups. September 11, like other national crises, might have worked to the political advantage of any president, but it peculiarly benefited George W. Bush by providing him with the overall rationale for his administration and its national-security policies.
Nonetheless, public-opinion polls continue to show Americans evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Pollster Stanley Greenberg reports that in 15 national surveys he conducted (with a total of 15,045 voters) during the year and a half after September 11, 46 percent favored the Democrats, 46 percent the Republicans. A recent Gallup study, based on 40,000 voters, finds 45.2 percent aligned with the Democrats, 45.5 percent with the Republicans.
But power in America today does not reflect the close balance of public opinion. Republican control of the House is absolute, and control of the Senate is nearly as effective. Unlike 2000, this year there is no serious chance that Democrats will retake control of Congress. Redistricting, notably in Texas, has put the House out of reach, and the retirement of five southern Democrats from the Senate makes any Democratic gains unlikely. Furthermore, as Robert Kuttner argues in this issue [see "America as a One-Party State," page 18], the Republicans have created so tight a system of financial and political control that it will take little short of a national upheaval to oust them from Congress.
The result is an asymmetry in political expectations this year. Conservatives can expect that if Bush is re-elected, Republicans will continue to pursue a sharply ideological agenda at home and abroad. Moreover, Bush will almost certainly get the opportunity that he has missed so far to make Supreme Court appointments and consolidate the conservative hold on the judiciary.
Objectively, the chances of a Democrat winning the presidency are not very high. Massive deficits and extremely low interest rates are giving the economy (and the stock market) an adrenaline rush that should last through the year. Iraq will probably remain stable enough to be painted a success. The one hope Democrats have is that voters will resist the sheer radicalism of the Bush presidency.
But if a Democrat does win, he will face huge deficits and a Republican Congress unwilling to repeal the Bush tax cuts. Where a Democratic president would immediately matter is in the conduct of war and peace, protection of civil liberties, separation of church and state, environmental regulation, and judicial nominations that would likely affect such key concerns as reproductive freedom and affirmative action. A Democratic president would likely block new moves to privatize Medicare and Social Security and to shift taxes away from rich.
These are scarcely small matters, but political realities will bar any Democrat from launching major progressive initiatives. For Democrats, the limited victory achievable this year would be chiefly defensive: checking the radical agenda that Republicans are pursuing. That is what the 2004 election is about. A time will come when liberal policies are back on the table, but not until Democrats can find a way to break the Republican lock -- or history blows it open for them.