Something odd is happening as the campaign gets serious for the mid-term elections here. Quietly, Democrats and Republicans alike are muttering the unthinkable. Come polling day on 7 November, could defeat be better than victory?
For George Bush's besieged Republicans, struggling to retain control of the House of Representatives and the Senate, the approach makes a bizarre kind of sense, an attempt to make a virtue of necessity. But for opposition Democrats, that argument does not work. In 2006, for once, everything is running their way.
Mid-terms do not choose Presidents, but almost invariably they are referendums on Presidents. These ones come when the Iraq war, the issue by Mr Bush will be judged, is more unpopular than ever. The President's job approval rating bumps along at 40 per cent or less and, one new poll shows, by a margin of 47 per cent to 31 per cent voters feel he will be a hindrance rather than a help to Republican candidates in November.
True, Americans tend still to trust Republicans more than Democrats when it comes to the "war on terror". But even that may not help much, because terrorism ranks only third among voters' pre-occupations in 2006, behind the Iraq debacle and the economy. The figures for GDP growth still look healthy, but ordinary Americans are worried about job security and stagnant real incomes, as well as falling house prices that some fear could provoke a recession.
Just as in 1994, when the Democrats were routed in that year's mid-terms, a reek of corruption surrounds the ruling party on Capitol Hill. Last year, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal toppled Tom DeLay, the once all-powerful House majority leader; now it has claimed another victim, with a plea bargain by Robert Ney, another disgraced Republican lawmaker on Capitol Hill, that is likely to mean jail.
These shenanigans have reinforced the sense that the Republicans have been around too long, that a change can only be for the better, and that after the Democrat defeats in 2000, 2002 and 2004, they are due a win. If so, would they capture the House, the Senate, or even both? Conventional wisdom holds that the party's best bet is the House. True, the redrawing of Congressional districts has drastically reduced the number of potential swing seats; probably not more than 40 of the 435 House seats are truly competitive. Even so, the required net gain of 15 seats is within the party's grasp.
The Senate, 33 of whose 100 members face re-election, is trickier. To win back the chamber for the first time since 2002, the Democrats must capture six Republican-held seats and lose none. Five gains are obvious. But beyond that, they would have to make inroads in Republican strongholds such as Virginia, Arizona and Tennessee, gambling on an anti-incumbent uprising akin to the one that cost Democrats eight Senate seats in the watershed year of 1994. Yet, it could happen, unless Republicans can change the argument.
To win, Republicans must shift the focus from national to local issues, from the President to the merits of individual candidates. And they must turn attention from Iraq, a sure vote-loser, back to the "war on terror", an issue on which the party is still broadly trusted by voters.
Thus President Bush's shamelessly political speech marking the fifth anniversary of 9/11 last Monday, when he raised the spectre of more terrorist attacks on US soil unless the US prevailed "on the streets of Baghdad". Alas, this strategy has now been blown off course by the party's civil war over the treatment of detainees, pitting senior Senate Republicans against the President.
Nor do Democrats seem to be hurt by their own divisions on the war. Hillary Clinton suffered fierce criticism from the party's left for her refusal to oppose the war. Yet she blew away the challenge of an anti-war candidate in Tuesday's primary for her New York Senate seat. But if the Democrats do prevail this autumn, it will not be pretty. American elections tend to be bare-knuckle affairs, but the campaign of the next seven weeks is likely to be among the nastiest.
Neither party is dwelling on the positive; indeed, one pundit suggested the Democrats adopt a 2006 manifesto of just two words: "Had enough?" These mid-terms boil down to a single question: will the Democratic argument that Republicans are corrupt incompetents, led by a reckless intelligence manipulator, trump Republican claims that Democrats are appeasers of terrorists and incapable of protecting the country?
And even if the Democrats do win, America's problems of governance will not disappear. If anything, legislative gridlock will worsen, as a stubborn President locks horns with a hostile House and/or Senate, each side intent on thwarting every initiative of the other, concerned only to extract every drop of partisan advantage in the run-up to the 2008 presidential vote.
What would change is Congress's oversight function. If the Democrats seize even one chamber, a procession of Bush administration officials will be hauled before hostile committees probing 9/11, the Iraq war, Medicare reform, you name it - all issues on which a Republican-controlled Congress has given the White House a free pass. But the atmosphere would grow more poisonously partisan.
Held in even lower esteem by voters than is the President, however, Congress may not be a prize worth winning. And if Democrats gained seats but fell short of victory, they could go into 2008 on an upswing, but still as aggrieved outsiders, blameless for the mishaps of the previous eight years.
For Republicans too, would defeat be that bad? Any Democratic majority in Congress would be tiny, yet enough to saddle the party with some responsibility for what looks like a desperately tricky two years. Some Republican strategists say their opponents can be relied on to mess things up, clearing the way for another Republican triumph in 2008. Such are the strange calculations of this fraught campaign.
SENATORS FACING A FIGHT
Joe Lieberman (Democrat, Connecticut)
Why he could lose: An Iraq war supporter, defeated in a primary by Ned Lamont, a war opposer.
Why he could win: An independent, he could attract enough centrist and moderate votes.
Odds: Even money
Lincoln Chafee (Republican, Rhode Island)
Why he could lose: He faces a tough opponent in one of the most Democratic states.
Why he could win: The Chafees have deep political roots in Rhode Island (his father was senator).
Odds: 6/4 against
Rick Santorum (Republican, Pennsylvania)
Why he could lose: He's a conservative in a state that elects moderate Republicans. Opponent Bob Casey is an attractive moderate.
Why he could win: Santorum is a proven fighter and winner.
Odds: 2/1 against
George Allen (Republican, Virginia)
Why he could lose: Allen has a tough opponent in James Webb, who became a Democrat in protest at handling of the war.
Why he could win: A former Virginia governor, Allen is popular.
Odds: 2/1 onReuse content