Economy Shaping Up to Be Key Factor in 2002 Elections

A prolonged economic recession is the best thing that could happen to Democrats targeting congressional seats in the 2002 elections.

That's the word from political observers who say the Sept. 11 attacks and subsequent war on terrorism have left little room for other issues, except perhaps the slipping economy, which began its downturn shortly before Republican President George Bush took office last year.

Some congressional watchers say "it's a bit cynical" to think the Democrats will actively work against an economic recovery in order to win seats in this fall's election. But others say Democratic successes are dependent on a floundering economy.

"As we move through the year, it will all depend on what happens with the economy," said Rich Galen, Republican strategist and creator of "The reality is (Democrats) will do whatever they can do to keep the bad economy going."

In November, all 435 seats will be up for grabs in the House, in which the 222 Republicans now hold a six-seat majority if they count Republican-leaning independent Virgil Goode of Virginia. There are 20 Republican and 14 Democratic seats open in the Senate, in which Democrats currently hold a one-seat majority.

If polls are anything to go by, Republicans are experiencing a slight edge in popularity. In a recent Gallup/USA Today poll, 44 percent of respondents said they preferred Republicans to deal with the recession over Democrats, who received 35 percent of the vote. In a similar Fox/Opinion Dynamics poll, that number was 40-29 in favor of Republicans.

In the Fox poll, however, respondents felt economic cycles and the war on terror had more to do with the recession than any actions by political figures. Of those polled, five percent blamed former President Clinton, five percent blamed President Bush, and five percent blamed Congress for the current situation.

"I think voters are more likely to blame the recession on (terrorist leader) Usama bin Laden than George W. Bush," said Michael Barone, political columnist and co-author of the Almanac of American Politics 2002.

However, "it may be the only card Democrats have to play," seeing there is no political benefit to opposing Bush's foreign policy, especially his handling of the war, for which he is receiving public favorability ratings in the high 80 percent range.

In fact, since the war began, little attention has been paid to anything other than fighting in Afghanistan and security at home.

"Think of the war as a bright light in your eyes," said Galen. "You just can't see anything else."

If the recession lingers, however, the light may fade, spelling trouble for Republicans, especially since Democrats are maximizing play on last month's failure to pass an economic stimulus package, saying Republicans would not compromise on health care assistance for unemployed workers.

"For the Democrats, their fate is largely dependent on the state of the economy to win enough seats in the Senate to retain the majority and enough in the House to regain a majority there," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution. "They have to make the case that the Bush administration was not able to pull the country out of a recession."

But with the November election still 11 months away, one observer says it's too early to tell what role the economy will play.

"Incumbents in both parties don't want to see recession. I really think we are too far from the fall elections to see how this is going to play out," said Sarah Binder, associate professor of political science at George Washington University.