The Bush Mandate

President Bush has finally won his mandate, the one he failed to get two years ago.

Presidents are supposed to have coattails when they get elected, not in a midterm election. Midterms are when presidents are supposed to see their parties suffer setbacks in Congress. That's been the rule in virtually every midterm since the Civil War.

In the 1990 midterm, President George H.W. Bush saw the Republicans lose one Senate seat and eight House seats. The 1994 midterm was a legendary setback for President Clinton: Democrats lost eight Senate seats, 52 House seats, and control of the House for the first time in 40 years. That was more than a setback. That was a repudiation, albeit a temporary one.

Then, 1998 broke another long-standing precedent. With Clinton under threat of being removed from office by the GOP-controlled Congress, Democrats suffered no net losses in the Senate and actually gained five House seats. The shock was enough to force House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., to resign.

What are we to make of the fact that the tradition of presidential-party setbacks has been broken for a second midterm in a row-and broken more impressively than four years ago? Under George W. Bush, the Republicans have taken back control of the Senate and expanded their majority in the House.

Here's one reason the rule of midterm setbacks no longer applies with regularity: Presidents rarely get elected with coattails anymore. Ronald Reagan was the last president who did. Neither George H.W. Bush nor Bill Clinton nor George W. Bush saw his party gain congressional seats when he captured the presidency. If a new president doesn't produce congressional gains for his party when he gets elected, his party is less likely to slide backward two years later. The huge Democratic losses of 1994 had nothing to do with Clinton's coattails. They had to do with his unpopularity.

The reason for the Republicans' impressive gains this year was essentially political. The election was turned into a referendum on a popular president. Democrats may try to console themselves by claiming that "all politics is local," but that is quite wrong. Republicans enjoyed a massive sweep across the country.

In the Northeast, Republican governors got re-elected in New York and Connecticut. Republicans won open races for governor in Maryland, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. In the South, Democratic governors got swept away in South Carolina and Georgia, while the GOP held on to four open Senate seats.

If the election proved anything, it was that governors are uniquely vulnerable to bad economies. At least 19 governorships switched parties. Most governors are constrained by balanced-budget requirements. Governors cannot live with deficits the way the president can. Governors have to make tough choices either to raise taxes or cut spending. That's why so many of them got the ax.

The governors of the four largest states survived, but they did so for very idiosyncratic reasons. The re-election of Republican George E. Pataki of New York had much to do with his enhanced stature after 9/11. In the case of Republicans Jeb Bush of Florida and Rick Perry of Texas, re-election had much to do with the president's enhanced stature after 9/11.

In California, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis's success in winning a second term had much to do with the weakness of his challenger, Bill Simon Jr. Simon's campaign was so inept that it appears to have depressed GOP turnout across the state. California was the great exception on November 5: It was the one state where Democrats turned in a strong performance.

In the rest of the country, the election turned out to be a referendum on Bush, because the Republicans set out to make it one. At a time of mounting economic anxiety, Republicans had little going for them, except the president's popularity. Bush's relentless campaign schedule had the effect of rallying his party. In a Gallup Poll taken the weekend before the election, 64 percent of likely Republican voters said they felt "more enthusiastic" about voting this year than in past elections. The comparable figure for Democrats was 51 percent.

Democrats failed to rally, for the obvious reason that they had nothing much to rally 'round: no message and no messenger. Democratic congressional leaders let Bush have his way on Iraq. And they could find no unifying position on the defining issue of Bush's economic program, the 2001 tax cut.

Recriminations are now in order. Democrats are scourging themselves for their party's timidity, saying that if only they had been tougher in opposing Bush on the tax cut and Iraq, they might have rallied the party and averted disaster. But such a leftward lurch might also have revived two of the party's most negative stereotypes-that its candidates are tax-lovers and defense-haters. The result might have been an even worse disaster for Democrats.

Bush took a calculated risk by making himself the central issue in the campaign. With Bush's 63 percent job-approval rating, however, the risk looked like one worth taking. The president put his clout on the line and saw it immensely enhanced by the election results.