Drop-In Politics

World Trade Center ground zero Oct. 4, 2001
In her latest Political Points commentary, CBS News Senior Political Editor Dotty Lynch takes a look at how the events of Sept. 11 have made government service hot again.

Applications to the New York City Fire Department are up threefold, military recruitment offices have been flooded with phone calls and over $600 million has been donated to help the recovery. A new spirit of national service has been spawned in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and it is reflected in a change of heart of many who thought that government service was not where the action was.

In the days leading up to Sept. 11 many of the political stories were about candidates not running for office. Republican Senators Phil Gramm, Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond all decided to pack it in. There were rumors that the other Texas Republican, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a new mother at 58, might return home to the private sector and that Tennessee Republican Senator Fred Thompson was bored in the minority in the Senate and was looking leave and make some money.

On Sept. 24 Senator Thompson said that he had, in fact, given serious thought to retiring but that reading David McCullough's biography of John Adams this summer started him rethinking. He said that the sacrifices President Adams made for public service had an impact on him. But it was the terrorist attacks that pushed him over the edge. "I think we’re all looking for ways to do our part, and there was a pretty obvious way sitting in my lap, staring me in the face," he said.

So too, North Carolina Democrat Erskine Bowles. Bowles, former Clinton chief of staff, announced in May that he would not seek the Senate seat being vacated by Jesse Helms. He said he wasn't a politician and couldn't turn himself into one. Now he says he has a calling. "Everything has changed for me. My aversion to being in a politician is unimportant. I want to spend all my time in public service." He will run for the Democratic nomination to oppose the likely Republican nominee Elizabeth Dole.

Rudy Giuliani is asking for a little more time and Bill Clinton is itching for a role to play. Gary Condit has started circulating petitions for a reelection run and Al Gore liked Iowa so much that he's going on to New Hampshire on October 27. Katherine Harris, the Florida Secretary of State and Rahm Emmanuel, the abrasive Clinton communications chief, announced plans to run for Congress. Government service is again hot and people who like to "make things happen" are looking for ways to do their part.

In the last few weeks the Bush administration shocked many Republicans as well as Democrats by embracing governmental activism and big spending as solutions to the threat of terrorism. The era of big government appears to be resurrected in many of Attorney General John Ashcroft's anti-terrorism ideas and President Bush's acceptance of federalizing airport secuity. Airlines have been bailed out, huge amounts of money have gone to New York for the recovery effort and a $75 billion dollar economic stimulus package is being prepared. House Republicans are grousing that President Bush will accept a boost in the minimum wage in order to get it passed.

How all this will play out in the mid-term elections is unclear. Right now the conventional wisdom is that the national unity and the strong ratings for President Bush will help the Republicans. But Democratic historian Arthur Scheslinger wrote this week that during our recent wars, the party in opposition has nearly always gained seats. He cites the 1918 in elections, held 18 months after war was declared, in which President Wilson lost both Houses of Congress to the Republicans, 1942, eleven months after Pearl Harbor, when FDR, the masterful politician, lost 50 seats n the House and 8 in the Senate; and 1950, five months after the start of the Korean War, when the Republican opposition gained 28 seats in the House and five in the Senate. "War years are years of tension, suffering, frustration, sacrifice and panic. This, for better or worse, tends to help the opposition party, whatever it will be."

Whether history repeats itself in 2002 remains to be seen. There will be many new tough issues and, now it seems, many strong candidates to slug things out. But, given the jitters of the past few weeks and the military action yet to come, most of us would be happy just to be around in November of 2002 to vote again.

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