- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2001

The wave of national unity surging across America's political landscape will last for a few months, but politics as usual will return when the election season opens, campaign analysts say.
President Bush enjoys huge job-approval ratings from the public and the support of Democratic adversaries in the wake of the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil in history.
This spirit of unity not only lifts Mr. Bush's plans to wage war against Saudi exile Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network. It also helps the president advance legislative proposals linked to national security, from energy to trade to missile defense.
But how long will bipartisan unity last? Political strategists on both sides of the aisle suggest that Mr. Bush has a limited amount of time.
"Politics is in a freeze-frame until the war starts to take hold," Republican campaign strategist Scott Reed says. "Soon after that, you will see the political battles restart on taxes and spending and how the administration is conducting the war.
"I'm preparing for January and February to be business as usual," Mr. Reed says. "We only have to remember back to the victorious Persian Gulf war in 1991 when former President Bush seemed invincible, and two years later we got Bill Clinton."
That's the view in Democratic circles, too, as party leaders chafe under a voluntary moratorium on campaign fund raising. Democrats fear the lull will undermine their chances in next year's midterm elections when, historically, the party controlling the White House loses seats in Congress.
"We're taking things day by day. Come Monday, we'll take a new look at where we are," says Maria Cardona, chief spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee. "We want to get back to the business that we do."
"As Americans get back to work and their daily lives, Democrats and Republicans will ultimately get back to some of the confrontations we have seen in the past," says Leon E. Panetta, former chief of staff in the Clinton White House. "You need to have that kind of debate. No one ought to march in lockstep in our democratic process."
Notably, Mr. Panetta says, how the Bush administration prosecutes the war on global terrorism should not and will not be off-limits and it might be a factor that breaks the spirit of unity.
"One is if any major screw-up occurs," Mr. Panetta says. "What happens in this war could change the dynamic very quickly. We saw this happen [with President Carter] in the Iranian hostage situation. Any mistake could wind up having a lot of [Democratic] members raise questions."
But some Republican strategists argue that terrorists' suicide airliner attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as well as the government's response, significantly altered the political dynamics.
"The landscape has been unalterably changed," says Ralph Reed, a Bush campaign adviser who is chairman of the Georgia Republican Party. "The American people have gotten to see Bush in action in a time of crisis and see a part of his leadership ability that they haven't been able to see before.
"This happened to Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing that helped turn his presidency around," Mr. Reed says. "When you have this kind of seismic shift in public opinion, I think it changes politics, or at least the tone of politics."
Former Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota, a Republican strategist who is close to the administration, says the war against terrorism now joins "the top ranks of politically defining issues" and this new reality "will have to be addressed by every level of government."
"Nobody is seeking political advantage in this time of crisis, but the fact of the matter is that national security plays to the long-term advantage of the Republicans," Mr. Weber says. "This will gravitate more to the Republican Party, which is more pro-defense, than to the Democrats, who tend to be more critical of defense.
"This will put more of a strain on the Democrats as the agenda unfolds, because their coalition includes the American Civil Liberties Union people who will be more nervous about the security protections we might need to take."
Another change: Mr. Bush is a much more powerful player in the legislative process and likely will get most of what he wants in the remainder of the fall session.
"There's no question that the president is stronger politically in terms of being able to move elements of his agenda," Mr. Panetta says.
Amid a heightened sense of vulnerability, Democrats dropped objections to Mr. Bush's expansive plans to develop a missile-defense system. Republican leaders in the House and Senate proposed a compromise trade authorization bill, previously blocked by Democrats. And the president's long-stalled energy plan, including provisions to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, is getting new bipartisan support.
As for the outlook for midterm elections?
"War places a premium on national unity and diminishes those who try to sharpen divisive issues," Mr. Weber says. "So anything that makes it harder to polarize a given electorate works to the advantage of incumbents."
But virtually everyone interviewed for this article suggested the wild card is the economy.
"We now have politics based on war and recession. The big question is, how do you get this economy growing again?" says Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, a liberal Democratic advocacy group. "By the time Congress comes back in January, and if the recession is deep, there is going to have to be a much more dramatic debate over this."
From the liberal point of view, a war against terrorism along with measures to stimulate the economy and strengthen internal security "will require a more activist government and a larger, more powerful government," Mr. Borosage says.
That's what most bothers such conservative supporters of the president as Grover Norquist, who as head of Americans for Tax Reform helped Mr. Bush win his tax cuts.
"Wars increase the size and scope and power of government," Mr. Norquist says. "We need to be careful not to allow legitimate national security concerns to metastasize into massive power grabs by the government for either taxes, spending or our freedoms and privacy."

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