It’s like WWI without mustard gas

Jonathan Chait writes a weekly column for The Times.

STRAP ON YOUR HELMET. Fix that bayonet. It’s time for a tour of the 2006 elections, and the best way to understand them is to understand World War I. Of course, the November elections will not mirror the Great War in every respect. There will be no use of mustard gas (hopefully). The Austro-Hungarian Empire probably won’t play an important role. Nonetheless, the parallels are eerie.

Concentrated terrain

Despite being called a “world” war, the vast majority of fighting from 1914-1918 took place in a relatively limited space. The same is true of the 2006 elections. Collectively, they are a national election, but for most Americans, the fight will take place “over there.” The battle for control of the Senate will take place mostly within five states where Republicans, who hold a five-seat advantage, look vulnerable: Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Missouri. Democrats lead in the first four and appear close to a tie in Missouri. To win the Senate outright, the Democrats would have to sweep those states and win one more, most likely Tennessee, a conservative state where the Republican has retired, or Virginia, a moderately conservative state where incumbent Republican George Allen is in a a tight race with former Reagan official-turned-Democrat James H. Webb.

Two of these races seem to hold the most interest because they may be testing grounds for new tactics by the Democrats. One is Pennsylvania, where Democrats have nominated Bob Casey Jr., despite the fact that he is an opponent of abortion rights. The other is Montana, where the Democratic nominee is Jon Tester, a beefy, populist farmer with a buzz cut. In both races, the Democrats’ goal is to find a way to win back working-class voters who may be attracted to the party’s economic platform but abhor the Democratic cultural agenda. Casey hopes to accomplish this by neutralizing the abortion issue. Tester’s approach is less issue-based and more personality-based. These races may be the equivalent of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, where the British first introduced the tank into combat. In both cases, the significance of the battle lies less in the immediate outcome than in what it portends for the future use of a potent new tactic.


In the House, the terrain is even more concentrated than in the Senate. Democrats need to pick up just 15 seats out of 435 to win control. That may sound easy, but no more than a few dozen seats -- less than a tenth of the total -- appear remotely competitive. There are two reasons that more than nine-tenths of the House is out of play. One is that Republicans increasingly live near other Republicans and Democrats increasingly live among other Democrats, which reduces the number of districts with a close enough partisan balance to field a competitive election. The second is that members of both parties have drawn up districts in order to cement their incumbents in place. Gerrymandering is an ancient art, but the technology used to create districts has grown so sophisticated that both parties -- but especially Republicans -- have learned to use it with less shame and more sophistication.

California Democrats and Republicans are especially notorious practitioners, having drawn a map that safeguards the state’s House incumbents from virtually all challenges. As a result, none of the expected competitive races lie within the Golden State.

As was the case in World War I, the limited terrain has spurred a strategic quarrel about widening the war. During the Great War, generals on both sides, but especially the Allies, debated whether to concentrate their resources in France, where the heaviest fighting took place, or to open fronts elsewhere, such as Turkey or Mesopotamia. Democrats are having the same debate today. Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is committing resources in all 50 states, with the long-term goal of making his party viable everywhere. This strategy has drawn bitter criticism from Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois and Charles E. Schumer of New York -- the Democrats in charge of directing their party’s electoral campaign -- who insist that the 50-state goal has diverted resources from battleground states where control of Congress will be won.

Deep-rooted enmity

Democrats and Republicans have come to loathe one another in much the same way the Germans and Austrians hated the French, British and Russians. As the field of the battle has narrowed, each side has come to view the struggle in something close to apocalyptic terms.

Even though the battle is for Congress, no entity has more at stake in these elections than the Bush administration. If Democrats manage to win control of one or both houses of Congress, it will be seen as a major and final rebuke of a presidency that has faced massive public disapproval through most of its second term. Not only would it become instantly difficult for the Bush administration to achieve its policy goals during its final years in power, it would expose the administration to congressional investigations, which under Republican control have been rare and toothless. Want to know why Bill Clinton was plagued by constant scandals while his successor has been mostly scandal-free? It’s not because Bush is a saint. It’s because Clinton faced a hostile Congress, while Bush enjoyed a compliant one controlled by his allies.

The dynamic is somewhat like that of 1917. If you’re not up on your World War I history, Germany maintained the geographic advantage, with defensive lines established deep into enemy territory. Yet its morale and resources had been sapped, and its capacity to continue the fight was lagging. The Republicans are in a similar position. They have control over both the House and Senate, and yet their support among the public has been deeply corroded. National Review recently published a story wondering whether GOP control of Congress was even worth protecting.


Democrats, meanwhile, see the November elections as their final chance. They were routed in 1994 (much as the French and Russians were in 1914) and have been slowly clawing back ever since. With public opinion at their backs, they see 2006 as their last, best chance to win back Congress.

Idealism vs. cynicism

One of the enduring debates about World War I is whether the participants genuinely believed in the grand principles they said they were fighting for, or whether it was all merely an exercise in propaganda. A similar debate could be had about the upcoming elections.

Thus far, the motivation on both sides is almost entirely negative. Democrats are not putting forward a positive agenda, but are merely arguing that the Republican Congress has been a rubber stamp for Bush’s various fiascos, which is true. Republicans counter that if the Democrats take over, they’ll have all sorts of left-liberals running committees and passing left-wing legislation. That’s half-true: Some of the potential Democratic chairmen are pretty liberal -- Michigan’s John Conyers Jr. would be likely to chair the House Judiciary Committee, for instance, and Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles would head the House Government Reform Committee -- but the Republican fear-mongering against the coming liberal “reign of terror” leaves out the fact that Democrats won’t be able to accomplish much without Bush’s signature.

Beneath the scare-mongering, though, there truly are some rather lofty principles at stake, and here is where I should admit that I strongly prefer that the Democrats win. If I had to sum it up in a word, I would say that the key issue in November is accountability.

Bush has put his policies before the American people three times. The first time, in 2000, he got half a million fewer votes than his opponent but won because of poorly designed ballots and voting machines in Florida. The next time, in 2002 (when he framed the elections as a referendum on his presidency), he derived enormous benefit from having been in office when terrorists attacked the United States. The third time, in 2004, he faced a wildly inept opponent in John Kerry (and that’s not just sour grapes; I said so here before the election). Bush has never been a popular president, yet he has been enormously influential both at home and overseas -- in most ways, to the country’s detriment. Unpopularity is one thing, but a defeat at the ballot box is another, and it’s the sort of negative judgment Bush badly deserves.

A second reason that Bush has been unaccountable is Congress itself. A primary role of Congress is to oversee the president through hearings, debates and investigations. Indeed, our entire political system is premised on the idea that the executive and legislative branches will clash. Under Republican control, Congress has utterly abdicated this responsibility. “This Congress doesn’t see itself as an independent branch that might include criticizing an incumbent administration,” said congressional scholar Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

It hasn’t always been this way. In 1993-94, when both houses of Congress and the presidency were controlled by the Democrats, the House Government Operations Committee held 135 oversight or investigative hearings. In 2004-2005, under unified Republican government, the panel (renamed the Government Reform Committee) held just 37.

That’s just one measure of the degree to which this Republican Congress has simply rolled over for the president. Partisan discipline has trumped everything, and the whole notion of checks and balances has fallen by the wayside.

Democrats are probably far too giddy about what they can accomplish if they win in November. They aren’t going to be able to stop the war in Iraq, and they won’t banish pork-barreling or back-scratching. But that’s OK. Woodrow Wilson didn’t make the world safe for democracy, but he did manage to keep a pretty noxious regime from dominating a continent.