- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2003

Momentum is everything in politics, and the GOP clearly has the “Big Mo” on its side.

In what may be a portent for President Bush and the GOP in 2004, America’s political terrain slid further to the right last week. Republicans claimed long-held Democratic territory by winning two more Southern governorships, in Mississippi and Kentucky.

The GOP now controls all the state top spots between Texas and Florida. If Republicans take Louisiana in Saturday’s runoff race and retain that seat, they will govern 29 states, which have nearly two-thirds of the nation’s population — including the biggest prize of all — Arnold Schwarzenegger in California.

Meanwhile, Democrats seem to be retreating. Four Southern Senate Democrats say they will not seek re-election next year: North Carolina’s John Edwards, Georgia’s Zell Miller, South Carolina’s Fritz Hollings and, just last week, Florida’s Bob Graham. All of them are from conservative states that Mr. Bush won in 2000 and that could easily add three or four more seats to the GOP’s majority.

Democratic leaders say the GOP’s recent gubernatorial victories suggest there is an anti-incumbency mood in the nation that will work against the Republicans next year. They’re half right — as this mood seems to be only working against Democrats.

Adding to the Republicans’ good fortune is last month’s news that the economy is building a head of steam, expanding at 7.2 percent in the third quarter.

That puts Mr. Bush — and the other Republicans on the ballot — in the same positive re-election position that President Reagan faced as he geared up for his second presidential bid in 1984.

At that point in Mr. Reagan’s first term, the economy was coming out of the worst recession since the Great Depression, and showing clear signs of increased strength.

Democrats ridiculed his tax-cut policies as “Reaganomics” and, like now, doubted they would work. But as the economy’s gross domestic product grew, unemployment slowly began declining and Mr. Reagan went on to win a second term in a 49-state landslide against Walter Mondale, who ran on raising taxes — just as the Democratic presidential candidates are doing now.

Economist Kevin Hassett says “the Reagan parallel is interesting because the [2001-2002] recession wasn’t that deep. It was shallow, except for business investment. Generally, after big declines, you have big increases and that’s what we’re likely to see now,” he told me.

Democrats can no longer say the economy is not growing, so they have stooped to calling this a “jobless recovery” and questioning whether it can last. But that argument began showing some big holes last month, when the economy produced a net increase of 126,000 jobs, pushing the unemployment rate down to 6 percent.

Soon after the Commerce Department released its third-quarter growth data, Mr. Hassett — a former Federal Reserve Board economist and now at the American Enterprise Institute — ran the numbers through his economic forecasting models. The results showed the economy will likely grow by at least 4 percent between now and next year’s elections, he told me.

“I found that it’s very easy to see employment growth in the fourth quarter of about half a million jobs, based on the third-quarter GDP and the history between strong GDP and job creation,” he said.

Indeed, over the next 12 months, Mr. Hassett sees the economy producing between 150,000 and 200,000 jobs per month. “Two million jobs is not unusual over one year, especially a good year,” he said. And 2004 is shaping up to be a very good year.

Meantime, the Democrats’ fortunes appear to be worsening. Howard Dean, their presidential front-runner, had to apologize for saying he is going after the votes of Southerners who have Confederate flags on their pickups. Hardly a friendly statement tailored to appeal to the Southern black vote.

Democratic voter surveys find there’s little distinction among the party’s presidential candidates. Fewer know what their party would do about the economy, except raise taxes. Party leaders worry the GOP has made deeper inroads into their base vote among Hispanics and unions.

This whole pathetic landscape is not is not a new phenomenon for Democrats, but part of a years-long trend. In 1992, Democrats controlled Congress with sizable majorities (267 Democrats to 167 Republicans in the House and 56-44 in the Senate), most of the big governorships (28-20, with two independents) and most of the state legislatures.

Since then, the Democrats have not only lost the White House, but their large majorities in Congress, the governorships and the state legislative chambers, too. Their precipitous erosion continues.

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

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