- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 4, 2002

Presidents often have a rough time in their second year. First-year victories are all but forgotten. The opposition party is on the attack almost daily. The voters are preparing to pass judgment on his party that usually loses seats in the midterm elections.

President Bush should have it so easy. This is only a small portion of what is on his plate in this campaign year:

Throw in two wars, one against the al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists, and the other between Israel and Palestinian terrorists. Add the disgruntlement in his conservative base over his support for steel and lumber tariffs, amnesty for illegal immigrants, and the hated campaign finance reform bill. Mix in the usual European displeasure with just about everything the United States does abroad. Toss in some irritability and cross words between Republican leaders and the White House over Mr. Bush's stalled agenda. Then season it with an economy that appears to be on the mend but, in the words of many on Wall Street, "is not out of the woods yet."

I've left out a lot of other things requiring the president's attention, but you get the idea. This is much more than the typical president has to contend with.

Still, there are always the complainers who say he is not doing enough to suit them. A front-page article in the New York Times quoted cranky Republicans on Capitol Hill who do not think Mr. Bush is doing enough to help his party in the coming congressional races. At the time the article appeared, the president was on a multistate campaign swing through the South on behalf of House and Senate candidates.

Despite the constant carping, the fact remains that the GOP's internal generic polls show they are enjoying a slight lead over the Democrats in Congress. Much of this has to do with Mr. Bush's immense popularity and its coattail effect in this year's contests.

A front-page headline Tuesday in The Washington Post about the battle for control of Congress said it all: "House Democrats' climb gets steeper."

"It's like Mount Everest for the Democrats," elections analyst Amy Walter told The Post. "The arithmetic suggests there are just not enough seats out there" for the Democrats to win back the House.

Boiled down to its political essentials, the midterm elections may be summed up in this possibly future headline: "Bush co-opts Democrats on the issues, holds House, narrowly reclaims Senate by one seat."

Several factors are working against the Democrats this fall: Redrawn district lines under reapportionment are making many Republican freshmen shoo-ins. The advantages of incumbency, with all of its campaign perks and assistance, is, if anything, stronger than ever, especially in a time of war when voters historically do not vote for change.

There were at least 75 competitive House races in 1990. This year analysts can count no more than three dozen or so, if that.

The Republicans need a net gain of one seat to take back the Senate. Right now, it looks like both parties may be able to hang on to all the seats they hold with perhaps one exception: The battle for the Senate looks like it will be decided in South Dakota where Repblican U.S. Rep. John Thune has a narrow lead over freshman Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson.

The continuing economic recovery, however, is perhaps the biggest factor of all that will determine the outcome for Mr. Bush and his party in November. Manufacturing rose for the second month in a row in March. Overall business activity, as it is measured by The Institute for Supply Management's index, is up to 55.6, beating all the forecasts. Construction spending showed its biggest jump in a year in February. Housing sales are better than ever.

Helped by Mr. Bush's 2001 and 2002 tax cuts, the recovery is turning out to be much stronger than anyone predicted just a few months ago. After a nearly 2 percent GDP rate in the fourth quarter that stunned analysts, blue chip economic forecasters now believe first-quarter growth could come in at nearly 4 percent or better.

That rate of expansion is going to be great for stocks that will also have a political impact no amount of negative advertising can easily overcome. Higher stock values are going to mean increased wealth for most of the 93 million shareholders who now own the American economy.

And this in turn will blunt the Democrats' much-touted fear campaign against Mr. Bush's Social Security reform plan to let workers invest some of their payroll taxes in IRA-type mutual funds.

There's nothing like a rising growth rate in stock and bond portfolios to strengthen our confidence in the future, especially among younger workers who want to build wealth for their kids' education and for their retirement.

Something tells me that the Democrats' expected campaign cry, "remember the Enron scandal," is going to fall a little flat this year.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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