- The Washington Times - Monday, July 16, 2001

Virginia's Rep. Tom Davis, in his second tour of duty as the hard-driving chairman of the House Republican campaign committee, is getting worried about the economy's impact on the 2002 midterm elections.
And his concern is for a good reason. Layoffs are occurring with disturbing frequency throughout the country. Unemployment has risen to 4.5 percent and could hit 5 percent by year's end. The "wealth effect" that Americans felt from their investments throughout the last half of the '90s have largely evaporated, and the economy is growing in this quarter by less than 1 percent.
Mr. Davis sees "gathering clouds" on the GOP's horizon. He says "the darkest cloud" right now is the weakening economy and the fear it may not recover before next year's congressional election season gets under way. If it doesn't, he warns that the voters will blame the party in power and oust House Republicans from office.
In an interview at the National Republican Congressional Committee headquarters on Capitol Hill, Mr. Davis is unusually blunt about his concerns over the economy. He warns that the GOP's base is not as energized as the Democrats, and President Bush has to work to turn things around.
Mr. Davis still thinks that the sluggish economy will recover by the fourth quarter. He knows there are some signs it might not, and the downturn could last into 2002. It could spell doom for the GOP's fragile majority.
"If the economy goes down the tubes, it will probably hurt more Republicans than Democrats," he told me. "Traditionally, the presidential party benefits or loses on the strength of the economy. People aren't blaming Bush right now for the economy, but if he doesn't solve this in a year, it attaches to him."
Mr. Bush's approval numbers remain in the 50 percent to 53 percent range, but he says that the NRCC's polls show that (the economy's malaise) "takes a little bit out of him."
More ominously, Mr. Davis says that if the economy has not recovered by April or May of next year, "it will change the whole issue matrix in the midterm elections."
If the economy is still flat or has declined further as 2002 approaches, it will dramatically change the political climate "from the urban-rural (division) we saw in 2000 to one of haves and have-nots, to people who are benefiting in the economy and those who are not benefiting, to those who like tax cuts and those who say tax cuts are the wrong thing and we need more government spending," he said.
Right now, though, Mr. Davis says, "there is no question that Republicans will pick up House seats" as a result of congressional redistricting to reflect population shifts in the 2000 census. He is sticking to his 10-seat pickup, even though other Republican officials expect the pickup to be no more than four to six.
Political campaigns are driven by intensity over issues. Last year, with the economy in high gear and not an issue, the intensity was fueled by cultural issues including gun control, abortion, homosexual rights and other social issues.
It is too early to know what the pivotal issues will be next year, but Mr. Davis is worried that there is little if any intensity over anything among his party's base, and he hints that part of the problem may rest with the White House.
"What you see is that Democrats right now want to win more than Republicans. The Democratic base is more energized than the Republican base today," he said.
Why? The GOP has become a little too smug and too self-satisfied for its own good. "Republicans control the presidency. We control the House. Our guys are sitting back here; their feet are on the desk. They're happy, but they're not energized," he said.
That's not the case with the Democrats. "They miss the gravy train, they want to get back in, so they are energized. They're going to hustle a little harder. Traditionally in the midterms the out party is more motivated. We're not as motivated. That's our problem. We've got a year to turn this around and motivate our base," he says.
And to a large degree that motivational job rests with Mr. Bush. The president must use his bully pulpit to rouse the nation and his party behind a winning agenda in 2002, Mr. Davis says. He does not explicitly say so, but if you read between the lines, it's clear Mr. Davis wants Mr. Bush to be more aggressive with the Democrats and to show much more leadership.
How can he succeed? Veto a few bad bills and don't be afraid of angering the big special interests, he says. The White House has bent over backward too many times to insist it wanted to sign a campaign finance reform bill, a patient's bill of rights and other initiatives pushed by the Democrats.
Bush, he says, needs to "veto a bill he thinks is bad. This is an opportunity for Bush to define himself as his own person, show you're a leader. People want leadership. He can't be afraid to tick major groups off."

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