What Did You Do in the Midterm, Daddy?

The next time President Bush talks to his father about war, he might ask, "What did you do in the midterm, Daddy?" The son could learn something from his father's political experiences.

At the time of the 1990 midterm election, Iraq was still occupying Kuwait. President George H.W. Bush tried to make Iraq the central issue of the campaign. This "brutal aggression will not stand," he declared at a campaign rally in Massachusetts a week before the election. That's the same thing President George W. Bush is trying to do now. "We must deal with threats to our security today, before it is too late," he recently declared at a campaign rally in Kentucky.

Republicans want to keep Iraq at the top of the agenda for two reasons. First, voters-by 43 percent to 32 percent in a mid-September Gallup Poll-think that congressional Republicans are more likely than their Democratic counterparts to make the right decisions on Iraq. The other reason is that Iraq crowds out domestic issues, on which Democrats have the advantage. "Obviously, the Republican strategy is to prevent campaigns from ever getting back to a domestic message," James Jordan, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told The New York Times.

That may be why Democrats are suddenly in a hurry to get an Iraq resolution through Congress. A vote on Iraq could allow Congress to move on to subjects that favor Democrats. And it would give many Democrats political cover: "I support the president on Iraq. Now let's talk about the economy."

The economy was central to the 1990 midterm, despite the looming confrontation with Saddam Hussein. The nation was in a recession, and the president had broken his no-new-taxes pledge. In October, the Republican White House and the Democratic Congress had negotiated a controversial budget deal in which they agreed to raise taxes.

Which issue had more influence on the outcome of the 1990 election-Iraq or the economy? Here's a clue. The day after the election, the president said, "I'm not talking victory because I am very disappointed the way some of the races turned out."

Republicans suffered a net loss of nine House seats and one Senate seat in 1990. Those weren't large losses in historical terms. But if the same thing happened this year, Democrats would take control of the House and keep control of the Senate.

Something unusual happened in the 1990 midterm. After the budget deal, angry voters took out their frustration on both political parties. Republican and Democratic incumbents alike were given a scare. Republicans were shocked when Newt Gingrich, the House Republican whip, nearly lost his seat in Georgia. Democrats were shocked when Bill Bradley almost lost his Senate seat in New Jersey. Bradley's near-defeat jump-started the political career of his challenger, Republican Christie Whitman.

That was also the year when the term-limits movement took off. Term-limits initiatives passed everywhere they were on the ballot. The 1990 midterm was a warning of the angry voter revolt that materialized in 1992 with Ross Perot's presidential campaign.

Now, just as they were 12 years ago, both parties are struggling to control the agenda. Who won that struggle in 1990? The voters did by sending the message they wanted to send.

But if the current president is looking for a lesson in successful agenda control, he can find one that's much more recent. Earlier this year, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had a problem: His economy. He had won office in 1998 on a promise to bring down unemployment. He didn't. So when the campaign started this summer, Schroeder's party was running behind the conservative opposition led by Edmund Stoiber.

Suddenly the Iraq issue emerged. And Schroeder found a way to turn the campaign around: a firm and unconditional "Nein" to German participation in any U.S.-led strike against Iraq. "Under my leadership, Germany will not participate in military action," he declared. His defiant opposition to attacking Iraq electrified the campaign and turned his party's fortunes around.

The Iraq issue made Schroeder sound decisive, while his opponent sounded evasive. "I do not want to go on a national path without agreement with the other Europeans," Stoiber said.

Remember the devastating floods that hit central Europe last month? They also enabled Schroeder to embellish his image. Craig Kennedy, president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, observed, "Schroeder has the amazing ability to look and act like a leader, especially in a time of crisis. And he did that to an extraordinary extent during the floods."

Schroeder's party went from 9 points behind in early August, to a tie in early September, to a narrow victory last Sunday. Schroeder's no-war message struck a chord with German voters. Was it anti-American? Anti-Bush? Most likely, it was antiwar. "It's really a reflection of a deep-seated resistance to the use of military power within the German electorate," Kennedy said.

A member of Schroeder's Cabinet created an uproar last week when she said, "Bush wants to divert attention from his domestic problems. It's a classic tactic. It's one that Hitler used." The truth is, it's one that Schroeder used, too.