Domestic Issues Making a Comeback

As the noose tightens around the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, the question for Washington is: "What's next?" There are two different answers to that question.

President Bush gave one answer last month when he told a gathering of U.S. Attorneys, "Afghanistan is the first overseas front in this war against terror." In other words, the war goes on until America eliminates terrorist networks everywhere.

Congressional Republicans have a different answer. They want the White House to shift gears and focus on another kind of threat—the domestic economic recession. Why? Because the recession is a threat to them. Republicans regard what happened in last month's New Jersey and Virginia elections as a warning. Despite Bush's soaring popularity, Republican governors in both states were replaced by Democrats. "Uh-oh," congressional Republicans say. That could happen to us in next year's midterm elections.

A poll last month by Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican firm, shows that nationally, concerns about the economic slowdown outweigh concerns about the terrorist threat, 41 percent to 39 percent. Further, fears about the slowdown far outpaced concern about the war overseas (7 percent) and the anthrax threat (5 percent).

There is a regional tilt to Americans' worries. In the Northeast, which was ground zero on September 11, fear of terrorism tops economic worries by 52 percent to 31 percent. But outside the major media centers of New York City and Washington, economic concerns top terrorism by 41 percent to 38 percent. Three-quarters of the nation's voters live outside the Northeast.

In last month's Gallup Poll, President Bush's job rating was still in the stratosphere. But the public's support for Congress is divided 50-50 between those supporting Democrats and those supporting Republicans.

Among people who support the President's handling of the economy, however, the poll showed that congressional Republicans enjoy a 15-point advantage over their Democratic colleagues. Summary of the economy's impact on voters' feelings toward Congress: Boom!

When people vote, it's still the economy, stupid, just as it was for the President's father when he ran for re-election in 1992. The son is perfectly aware of what happened to his father. So he's trying to show he's engaged on the economy. More than that, he's packaging the war and the economy together. "The terrorist attacks of September 11th hit our economy hard," he said in his December 1 radio address. "They hurt our airlines and hotels and restaurants, and undermined consumer and business confidence."

The war argument was crucial in persuading the House, on December 6, to give the President fast-track authority to negotiate new trade agreements. At least it was among Republicans. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois warned GOP colleagues they could vote to "support our President who is fighting a courageous war against terrorism," or "undercut the President at the worst possible time."

In 1998, when the House killed a measure granting President Clinton fast-track authority, Republicans supported the proposal 151-71. This month, Republicans voted 194-23 in favor of fast-track. Republican opposition dropped from 32 percent to 11 percent. That's partly because of the change of Presidents from Clinton to Bush. But it had a lot to do with the war as well.

What about Democrats? Would they dare defy a popular President on an issue of international importance? The answer was yes, because it was also an issue of domestic importance.

"This debate is about trade, not about terrorism," Sander M. Levin, D-Mich., told the House. In 1998, Democrats voted 171-29 against giving Clinton fast-track authority. This month, the Democratic vote was 189-21 against fast-track. Opposition among Democrats intensified between 1998 and 2001 from 85 percent to 90 percent.

President Clinton worked hard to erase the Democrats' anti-trade image. He succeeded in one respect—the Democrats' rhetoric changed. "I think free trade is a good thing," House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., said during this year's debate. "The President ought to have that authority." But when it came time to vote on the issue, the momentum was in the opposite direction, with many self-described "pro-trade Democrats" voting no on December 6.

The surprising thing about the trade vote isn't that the President won. It's that in a time of war, he had to work so hard to win—by one vote. In the grand tradition of pork barrel politics, House leaders had to buy votes by offering concessions and making deals—including a last-minute promise to spend $20 billion more to help the unemployed.

That's politics as usual. But it means something more. It means the country is beginning to come out of the trauma of September 11. Fear of terrorism is fading, while concern about the recession is growing.

The Persian Gulf War has often been compared with a video game. It ended quickly. "Game over. We won. On to the economy." Could the same thing happen the day after America and its allies get Osama bin Laden? Bush hopes it doesn't. But congressional Republicans may be eager to change the agenda to the economy. It's the issue that means life or death for them.