A critical campaign

September 04, 2002|By Jules Witcover

MILFORD, N.H. -- This year's Labor Day celebrations once again spotlighted approaching congressional elections, as candidates here and around the country intensified their efforts in traditional parades, picnics and speeches.

With the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks just around the corner, the patriotic spirit was particularly evident in towns like this one. Marchers donned Revolutionary and Civil War garb, and in nearby Salem one politician even unctuously dedicated his self-serving campaigning to the victims of 9/11.

Congressional elections are local affairs, but the national stakes in the political campaign this fall are nevertheless extraordinarily high -- for both parties, for President Bush and, if you think party control of Congress makes a difference, for the public at large.

The president spent much of his so-called vacation hitting up contributors in behalf of Republican congressional candidates. He hopes his beneficiaries will keep the House of Representatives in GOP hands and pick up the single seat the Republicans need to regain the Senate reins. As a fund-raiser in August, he made former President Bill Clinton look like a piker.

The Democrats, bent on holding the Senate and taking over the House, are counting on public distress over the economy and corporate greed to counter Mr. Bush's money, and his cheerleading on the war against terrorism.

Here in New Hampshire, the main attraction is the Republican primary fight between 12-year incumbent Sen. Bob Smith and challenger Rep. John E. Sununu for the Senate seat. Next Tuesday, the state's Republicans will decide which of the two will run against retiring Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen in November.

The race has drawn national attention because Mr. Smith, who earlier quit the GOP in a tirade on the Senate floor and then scrambled back, is considered among the most vulnerable of GOP incumbents. Mr. Sununu is generally rated a better bet against Ms. Shaheen in the fall, but old-timer Mr. Smith has climbed back in the polls over the summer. A GOP loss here to Ms. Shaheen could keep the Senate in Democratic control.

Elsewhere across the country, a relative handful of other House and Senate elections will also be critical in determining control of Congress in January 2003, and whether Mr. Bush is able to proceed with war against Iraq without true consultation with the legislative branch.

Administration lawyers had been saying the president needed no further authorization. But amid more recent signs of internal debate over the wisdom of pre-emptive military action, Congress is increasingly demanding to be heard, and will grow even louder should the Democrats win the House and hold the Senate.

Even one Republican, Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, has called for another try at a weapons inspection mission into Iraq, an idea also embraced by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

At the same time, as Congress remains tied up with unfinished legislative business, voters are being shortchanged in campaign discussion of what to do about Iraq.

Congress has a "legal" requirement to adjourn by summer but routinely ignores it. Incumbents thus are obliged to campaign mostly on weekends, shuttling back and forth from Washington between votes. That is no way to meet their responsibilities, especially now.

Congressional candidates of both parties should be out on the campaign trail regularly over the next two months, discussing the pros and cons of America resorting to pre-emptive force in this unprecedented situation.

The potential implications for war and peace should be producing a major public forum on the president's war-making powers, but it has not yet happened. With Labor Day behind us, such a forum as part of the unfolding congressional campaign is overdue. But the president, for one, apparently sees no need for it.

His simple message to voters for November seems to be: Give me more Republicans in Congress and control of both houses, so I can pursue the war against Iraq I have in mind, without interference there.

Jules Witcover usually writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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