- The Washington Times - Friday, September 20, 2002

Watch cable news or the Sunday interview shows, listen to talk radio or read the local newspaper and one hears a constant drumbeat from the political chattering class: "Despite one of the most turbulent years in our nation's history, this November, it will be politics as usual across America."

No, it won't. It won't be like other election years because the political environment in which this election is taking place is like none we have ever seen before. Just six weeks before the November midterm congressional elections, Americans have yet to resolve the tragedy of September 11 or their worries about the roller-coaster stock market. The opposite of resolution is uncertainty, and people are uncertain about their safety, their economic well-being, their future, and their politics in ways we have never seen before.

Meanwhile, the political class continues to operate in a 1990s political environment perfunctorily acknowledging a different America, but then quickly returning to their view that, in the end, this election is just one more in the heated battle for control of Congress. Democratic and Republican leaders and strategists along with the media need to understand that 2002 isn't going to be politics as usual because of four unique elements, which are creating a significant dynamic of uncertainty:

• Until this past summer, there has always been a very strong correlation between a president's job approval and the degree to which people believe the country is on the right or wrong track. As the economic situation worsened over the past year, more and more people began to separate their attitude toward the direction of the country with the job President Bush is doing. This is something new in polling, and how that voter behavioral change will impact voting behavior is unclear.

• In past election years, economic growth and jobs have defined the issue of the economy. In the most famous line of the 1992 election, "it's the economy, stupid," rising unemployment and recession were the underlying problems that cost the first President Bush re-election.

Ten years later, Ronald Reagan's dream of Americans owning America has largely been realized. Today, 70 percent of voters are invested directly or indirectly in the country's financial markets. With a large number of people's savings and retirement at risk, the stock market, for the first time, has become a "third rail" in this year's economic debate. Politicians, pundits, and the media are struggling to understand the political ramifications of this important addition to the economic issue mix. Simply put, nobody knows what to say about the market or how to say it in the context of this fall's election.

• On September 11, an extraordinary number of people actually saw the second plane fly into the south tower in real time and watched thousands of Americans die before their eyes. Polling data and focus groups consistently show that for many people there has been some resolution, but there will never be closure on this issue. Yet, in some of the most cynical political analyses of September 11, leading pundits have discounted the lasting impact of that gruesome image and have fundamentally underestimated its personal and political implications. Some changes are already evident.

Clearly, post-September 11, people have significantly increased concerns about economic security and personal safety as seen by their strong support for the war on terror and potentially a war against Iraq. Both issues have added a new dimension to the election issue mix.

While patience for the harsh partisanship that has characterized Washington for the past decade was growing thin before September 11, today voters have little or no tolerance for partisan ideological conflict or negative messages. People want their leaders to solve problems not vie for political advantage. And whether it is Bob Barr, Cynthia McKinney, or Andrew Cuomo, politicians are learning that the price of highly inflammatory rhetoric or behavior may be a high one from now on.

In this post-September 11 political environment, voters will also consider a broader array of issues when casting their votes this November. Pundits in Washington are arguing that voters this fall will make their decisions based on either domestic issues or foreign policy issues; it can't be both. But it can and likely will. On September 11, people didn't suddenly trade their domestic concerns like education or the economy for foreign policy issues like homeland security. Instead, they came to a realization that they hadn't paid enough attention to foreign affairs and as a result have expanded their list of concerns. How this expanded issue mix plays out at the polls remains to be seen.

• Finally, Congress has been closely divided in the last four elections. In fact, the country has never gone this long without giving one party or the other a mandate to lead. Perhaps this election will be the one in which voters make that decision; perhaps not, but there is no question that this voter indecision has taken us into uncharted political waters without a map.

For the next six weeks, the dynamic of uncertainty will clearly be in play. Some believe that when it comes to politics, the "past truly is prologue." They are relying on electoral history and campaign dogma to define the political environment of Nov. 5 and refuse to recognize this important new dynamic. For them, it's just politics as usual, but there is nothing usual about this year or the new world in which we find ourselves.


David Winston is president of the Winston Group.

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