Will Congress Change Hands?

     Thomas Friedman of THE NEW YORK TIMES writes, 
"President Bush has slipped in one recent poll to a 29% 
approval rating. Frankly, I can't believe that. These 
polls can't possibly be accurate. I mean, really, ask 
yourself: How could there still be 29% of the people who 
still approve of this presidency?"

     Indeed. Bush has much to answer for, but we have to 
square his low poll ratings with the even lower ratings 
Congress is getting. In a time of prosperity, the country 
is in a remarkably foul mood about the way it's being 
governed. So much for the idea that "it's the economy, 

     A new WASHINGTON POST-ABC NEWS poll finds 56% of 
respondents preferring to see the Democrats controlling 
Congress after this year's elections.

     Bush, who once boasted that he was "a uniter, not a 
divider," can't seem to unite the voters, or even the 
Republicans, behind him anymore; Rush Limbaugh may talk 
as if Bush's critics are all liberals, but more and more 
of them are angry defectors from Bush's conservative 
base, upset about everything from immigration to the Iraq 
war to profligate spending. Others are just people of no 
particular philosophy.

     Not long ago Limbaugh was crowing that conservatism 
had triumphed and that the voters had repudiated 
liberalism. Does he now think 71% of those voters are 
liberals? Or is it that Americans would overwhelmingly 
prefer even liberals with common sense to what the 
Republicans are giving them?

     The Republicans have good reason to dread the coming 
elections; under Bush's leadership, they have wasted all 
the advantages they had gained since the "Republican 
Revolution" of 1994.

     But this doesn't mean the Democrats inspire much 
enthusiasm, let alone lasting loyalty. Their current 
strength is only the fact that they aren't Republicans, 
so they appear to offer immediate relief rather than a 
permanent cure. They have no idea how to define 
themselves; they can only snipe at Bush and make 
demagogic appeals to various discontents.

     Bush's strategist Karl Rove is warning that a return 
to Democratic dominance would be even worse than 
continued GOP dominance, and he may be right (especially 
for those facing the danger of indictment or 
impeachment); but as a battle cry, this won't do. The 
Republicans need a better campaign theme than the memory 
of how bad their opponents used to be. The evils of the 
past were bad enough; the evils of the future may be even 
worse; but the evils of the present are the ones we 
really feel. In politics, that's what counts.

     Still, both major parties have colluded to eliminate 
real competition, so most congressional seats may remain 
safe in spite of what the polls are telling us now. This 
is a democracy, but one in which, after all, the will of 
the people is kept well under control.

Security Matters

     Bush's "comprehensive" five-point plan to deal with 
illegal immigration hasn't found many takers. The 
overwhelming public demand, voted down in the Senate (but 
commanding stubborn support in the House), is that the 
government "secure our borders" before it even thinks 
about granting citizenship to those already here or 
allowing more "guest workers" to enter the country. 
Conservatives are even more impassioned about this than 
the general public.

     On the other hand, businessmen want cheap labor, and 
Bush has always hoped, since his Texas days, to welcome 
Hispanics into the Republican Party before the Democrats 
can grab them all. It looks as if that's now an idle 

     Bush can't seem to get anything quite right, and 
fate isn't giving him any breaks. At this point I 
wouldn't be surprised if one of his aides were found to 
be linked to Duke University's lacrosse team. It's been 
that kind of year.

     He took another public-relations setback when USA 
TODAY reported that he had authorized the spooky National 
Security Agency to compile a secret superfile of billions 
of phone calls in this country. He confirmed this, but 
insisted that it was all legally done and scrupulously 
conducted; any wiretapping was approved by court order, 
and only suspected terrorists were targeted.

     Even if this was all true, it didn't dispel the 
feeling that Big Brother is watching us. In the name of 
"security," a huge and secretive government bureaucracy 
-- unknown to the Constitution -- turns out to be keeping 
us under surveillance without telling us. Maybe Bush and 
his people are exercising this power strictly by the book 
(whatever "book" that may be); but how can he guarantee 
that all his successors will do so? With the best will in 
the world, he can't.

     That eerie power already exists, we are defenseless 
against it, and Bush's personal intentions are 
irrelevant. But he fails to grasp that the issue isn't 
just whether he means well. We are at the mercy of huge 
state bureaucracies never contemplated by the Founding 
Fathers and of authorities never granted by the 
Constitution. These are part of the executive branch and, 
theoretically, under the control of the president.

     But like the Constitution itself, this is no more 
than a thin legal fiction.

Legacy of Distraction

     A reader quite properly demands to know whether I 
was ever as critical of Bill Clinton's use of 
presidential war powers, in Iraq and in the Balkans, as I 
have been of Bush's.

     I'm afraid the answer is "all too seldom."

     I can explain (but not excuse) this dereliction by 
recalling that war didn't seem a pressing matter during 
the Clinton years; he seemed a product of the Vietnam era 
who had too much sense to repeat that experience. 
Actually, the only part he was averse to was the 
political cost of getting American soldiers killed. He 
didn't mind killing foreigners with bombs and lethal 
economic sanctions.

     So Clinton's ironic "legacy" is that he is more 
notorious for his lesser sins of lust and lying than for 
the tens of thousands of deaths he caused. And when he 
lied about the girl he sneaked into the Oval Office, his 
entire cabinet vouched for his honor; but not one of them 
resigned when the truth came out.

     He was like a stage-magician who keeps you watching 
his right hand to distract you from what his left hand is 
doing. His sins distracted us from his crimes. I fell for 
it along with almost everyone else.

                 +          +          +                  

     "At present, I once observed, the U.S. Constitution 
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