Readers, I ate my article with Tabasco. I never thought the Senate would fall

By Tim Hames (THE TIMES, 09/11/06):

Well, it wasn’t only Britney Spears who filed for divorce on Tuesday. A large section of the American electorate did the same to the Bush White House. Still, the President’s marriage with the voters did last three times longer than her second husband has (and approximately 2,000 times longer than the first one). What is more, the United States cannot secure a decree absolute from George W. Bush until January 2009, which allows him two years to say sorry often enough to secure a reconciliation.

These were stunning results, particularly in the Senate. It showed how bad things were for the Republicans when they spent the early hours of yesterday hoping that a few cowboys in Montana (presumably not the Brokeback Mountain type) might save their bacon in that chamber. How George Allen in Virginia managed to blow that state is a mystery well beyond anything that the world of fiction could envisage.

New Jersey comfortably re-elected its Democratic senator even though he (like many politicians before him in that famously ethically challenged place) is under federal criminal investigation. I used to wonder why New Jersey is called “the Garden State”. I know now. It is where you deposit the rubbish.

So the Senate seems as if it will effectively be under the control of Senator Joseph Lieberman, rejected by his own Democratic voters in a Connecticut primary three months ago, but re-elected by the population at large.

He has said that he will side with his old colleagues to let the Democrats take command of all the committees but will then vote with his conscience issue by issue. To all intents and purposes, therefore, the Senate is tied but tied in terms that favour the Democrats. The House of Representatives, by contrast, will be dominated by that party’s leaders.

So, not a great night for yours truly who, having failed to appreciate that the senator from Virginia has a political deathwish or that New Jersey voters would be quite so relaxed about the charge that their senator may be a crook, promised to eat a newspaper column seasoned with Tabasco sauce if the Senate slipped from Republican hands. I could have hung on until every last legal dispute was settled but opted to scoff it down regardless. Not exactly Gordon Ramsay, but it could have been worse. And the experience was over and done with faster than a Britney marriage. What do I do if it turns out that the Republicans won in Montana or Virginia? Best for all concerned not to think about it.

What do these results mean? Can history provide us with any clues? Who will have the last laugh come the 2008 presidential battle?

The first point to be made is that the results fit with a pattern of exceptional volatility in the United States over the past decade. In 1998 the Democrats gained seats in the House of Representatives (but not enough to capture it) in the sixth year of their own presidency, a feat not achieved since 1822.

In 2000 Mr Bush won a majority in the electoral college despite running second in the popular vote, an event that had not been witnessed since 1884. Two years later his party regained the Senate and made more progress in the House, the first time this had occurred in the second year of a presidency since 1934. This week the Democrats appear to have snatched back both the Senate and House in the sixth year of a presidency — the last time that was seen was in 1918.

Oh, and between all this we have had the first impeachment trial of a president since 1868, the first foreign attack on the mainland United States since the British set fire to the White House in 1812 and an outright invasion of a foreign nation as well. It has been a wild ride. History has been working the night shift.

It will be doing overtime in 2008 too. The next election for the White House will be the first in which there is neither a sitting president nor an incumbent vice-president in the race since 1952. Furthermore, it will be the first when neither of the two principal contenders has any ties to the outgoing president whatsoever since 1896. Back then the Democrats — seeking to distance themselves from the unpopular President Grover Cleveland (Remember him? Thought not) — picked William Jennings Bryan who, at 36, was the youngest man ever nominated by a major party. He lost in that bid for power.

The reverse may be true next time. These results have strengthened the hand of the Republican senator John McCain. He will be 72 by 2008 (twice the age of Bryan). He would be (bar Ronald Reagan for his second term) the oldest man to take the oath of office as President. Yet he is today neatly placed for that exalted position.

For while his age would customarily be deemed a political liability, in these very, very strange times it may well be an asset. After two baby-boomer presidents in Bill Clinton and Mr Bush, the slogan “It’s time for a grown-up” could have traction. A Republican White House and a Democratic Congress is a recipe for policy gridlock. Not much of consequence will be achieved over the next two years, while Mr Bush will be forced to change his stance on Iraq or risk a total breakdown in his relationship with the Republicans and the military, never mind the Democrats and the American citizenry.

So the voters will be desperate for a distinguished “above politics” individual, who can credibly claim that he is against the sleaze of Washington life (there are only two industries in that city, government and narcotics, and the wrong one is illegal) and has a record that inspires confidence on foreign policy and national security.

It is far from an unattractive prospect. It is also one that would reinforce Winston Churchill’s shrewd maxim that the United States can always be relied upon to do the right thing — having exhausted all the other possibilities.