Move Over Miss Cleo!

Balance for power in congress, campaign buttons, democrat and republican symbols AP / CBS

Have we gone from a political tie-game to a blowout? Not quite. But in his latest Against the Grain commentary, CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer peers into the political future and finds that the Republicans have the better players.
It's ten days after the election and I still can't decide whether to renounce my pre-election column. Here's my offending punditry:

"A president who lost the popular vote occupies the White House. The Senate is divided 50-49-1. The House is more closely split than it has been since 1955…Next week's mid-term elections pose little threat of breaking this political tie game. Divided government and a divided electorate define these political times."

I think I'll go ahead and fall on my pen.

In the Big Picture, the Big Split still reigns and we're still a 50-50 nation. Republicans do control Congress, but just barely. The governors' mansions are equally divided between the parties after the Democrats picked up key presidential states -- Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Still, President Bush made some Big History, becoming the first Republican to shake the curse of the mid-terms when he actually gained Congressional power in an off-year election. Incumbent Republican Senators, governors and House members did remarkably well.

And Democratic cannibalism commenced immediately, though this may be the healthiest diet the party has had in years.

But White House political guru, Karl Rove, the man even Republicans credit for their glory, isn't sure what mega-trend it was that broke the tie-game. "It's not just that Republicans picked up three seats in the Senate or six or seven in the House," he said. "It's something more fundamental, but we'll only know what it is in another two years or four years."

Political theory aside, Rove had the horses this year and wasn't afraid to run them. Horse races are like any other sport; a good game plan doesn't compensate for weak athletes.

As soon as the last chad in Florida fell, Rove recruited top-tier Senate candidates and had the fundraiser-in-chief fill their coffers. In the last weeks of the campaign, the president had the guts to spend his political capital, risk his perceived prestige and campaign like mad for GOP candidates. It worked.

And if you keep putting theory aside and simply look at the two parties' stables with a cold handicapper's eye, the Republicans have the better horses for the races ahead.

First off, the Republicans have a stud, George W. Bush. The Democrats, simply put, don't. They don't even have anything like a pack leader.

If, for the sake of argument, Mr. Bush were to lose a battle with a pretzel, think about the horses the Repubs could run in '04 – not counting Dick Cheney. From the Cabinet, there's Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld and Tom Ridge. (I'm not including the hungriest of them all, John Ashcroft.) And there's always John McCain.

The bench is deep, too. Even though senators never become presidents, a few of them have potential, including Bill Frist and Chuck Hagel. Governors are better candidates. George Pataki and Mitt Romney, the handsome Olympic savior just elected in Democratic Massachusetts, will be nicely groomed. And for fun, toss in Condi Rice and Rudy Giuliani.

Few owners would trade that stable for the '04 Democrats. Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle look pretty tarnished right now. John Kerry is cursed with being a senator. John Edwards is handsome and "a natural", but he's a senator too, and an unknown one. Howard Dean is unknown and, well, unknown. Gore and Lieberman have been adequately dissected. And there's always Hillary.

How about the back bench? The Clinton Cabinet produced more convicts than contenders. The most attractive are Republicans or ersatz-Republicans, Bill Cohen and George Tenet. The current corporate crime wave has taken Bob Rubin out of the game.

Among sitting governors, Mark Warner and Tom Vilsack are the most buzz-worthy and that's not saying much. The consensus best new face of '02 is Jennifer Granholm, elected governor in Michigan. But she was born in Canada, aye.

Both parties caricatured themselves badly with the changes they made in their House leadership. Republicans are giddy at the prospect of teeing off on Nancy Pelosi for two years and who can blame them? Tom "The Hammer" Delay is just as juicy a target, but Democrats know that with Mr. Bush in the White House, they'll never get the mileage out of Delay that they got from Newton Leroy Gingrich.

The Republicans also reversed another trend and brought more experienced, more polished, less toxic pols into the Senate. Elizabeth Dole replaced dark-side Jesse Helms and Lindsey Graham takes over from Strom Thurmond. Super-sane John Sununu the Younger replaced nutty Bob Smith of New Hampshire. Twangy warrior Phil Gramm of Texas departs and Lamar Alexander, sans the plaid shirt, enters from Tennessee.

So the Republicans have better starters, a better bench and they also have better fans. They have the overt backing of a cable news network called Fox, many national radio talk-show hosts and legions of local talk-show jocks; talk about liberal media all you want (note to conservatives: send those irate e-mails in now), but the Democrats have no equivalent agit-prop machine.

Republicans have a network of think tanks, for-profit lobbyists, Christian grass-roots groups, zealous gun-rights and anti-abortion organizations that are not only well-funded, but well orchestrated. Democrats don't do orchestration.

And increasingly, the Democrats don't do realism. The party and its partisans retain an unshakable faith that "people" automatically trust them more than the Republicans to protect their wallets and jobs in hard times and to give them a fair shake in good times. It's sort of the party's in-house, make-believe entitlement program and no one has told them it's over.

Statistically, the electorate and the government are still closely split. But the Republican half is bigger.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is Editorial Director of CBSNews.com based in Washington.

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Against the Grain


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