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US Politics and the Iraqi Crisis

TO assess the impact of the Iraqi crisis on the upcoming fall elections one need go no further than to look at the Cuban missile crisis and its effect on the 1962 elections. President Kennedy's ``standing up to the Russians,'' as it was widely perceived, did help Democratic candidates. Wisconsin's Gaylord Nelson was one of those involved in a close race for the Senate who was given a valuable and perhaps decisive boost.

I mentioned this to Democratic National Chairman Ron Brown the other day. Mr. Brown said he didn't expect any ruboff from President Bush's hike in popularity on upcoming races. ``Remember,'' he said with a laugh, ``Bush is no Kennedy.''

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But I think that Bush's ``standing up to Saddam'' will provide a political climate favorable to Republicans in the midterm elections in November.

Brown contends Bush has no coat-tails. But in close races the widespread feeling that Mr. Bush is providing strong leadership could well influence independent-minded voters to back a candidate in the president's party.

A series of Monitor breakfast press sessions with national leaders have provided some important insights into how the Iraqi crisis will play politically.

Speaker Tom Foley spoke of a new ``fear'' of his: that the president's people and congressional leaders would not be able to work out an agreement on how to reduce the immense budget deficit.

He said the committee, which will attack the problem anew right after the current recess, ``may be afraid to raise taxes or cut spending lest such move now would - in the wake of Iraq and its impact on our economy - send us into a recession.''

The respected economist Alice Rivlin met with reporters the next morning and was told of Speaker Foley's anxieties. Dr. Rivlin said she was confident that the committee would come up with a deficit-cutting package that would avoid the Gramm-Rudman penalty.

Further, Rivlin said she wasn't certain there would be a deep recession. She sees a ``soft'' recession - if any at all. She added that there might well be occurrences in the Iraqi crisis that would cause her to have to reshape this assessment.

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At another breakfast session, Illinois Democrat Paul Simon, locked in a battle with Lynn Martin to retain his Senate seat, said he ``wasn't sure'' about how the US involvement in the Mideast would play politically in this contest.

But he said that Sen. Everett Dirksen's role as a consultant to President Kennedy during the missile crisis had helped the Illinois Republican in his '62 Senate race. Kennedy had turned to the GOP leader for bipartisan support.

Perhaps Simon was not intending to make the point, but to reporters it seemed clear: A president taking a widely applauded position in standing up to a threat to the US can pass along his popularity - even to a politician of the other party.

Simon said, based on his campaigning around Illinois, that most Americans were behind the move but that there were many people - ``mostly those who really weren't that well informed on what was going on'' - who had reservations about the president's response. He said that some of these were people who remembered the Vietnam war and the disaster it became to the US.

The president's campaigning for Republican candidates this fall clearly will be made more effective by this continuing lead role on the global stage - unless there are reverses or instances of bad judgment that damage his image.

Speaker Foley wouldn't concede that Bush would have helpful coattails. But he did concede that as president he would be a most successful fund-raiser - and that this, of itself, will be of immense assistance to the Republican candidates.

Senator Simon was providing his president unqualified backing for this Mideast response - as long as it remained defensive. He certainly wasn't giving his blessing, as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, to the commitment of US ground troops to an offensive aimed at recapturing Kuwait. Simon said that such an offensive would doubtless result in the loss of many lives.

So it is that the president embarks on his biggest test - one that could ensure his reelection or defeat in 1992. At the beginning his support is bipartisan, and he is getting an ``A'' for his early performance from top officials. But the road ahead - diplomatically, militarily, and politically - is a perilous one.

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