APS News

Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis

White House Dominance May Leave Science Dangling

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

It wasn't supposed to happen this way. The party holding the White House always loses congressional seats after its first two years in the Oval Office, political historians said.

Even on the morning of Election Day, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe was so certain of victory that he repeated a prediction for NBC's Tim Russert: "Jeb Bush is gone!" A little known Democrat, he said, would sweep into the Florida statehouse. Not only that, but in the President's own home state of Texas, he prophesied, Democrats would wrest a Senate seat from Republicans.

McAuliffe was not alone in forecasting a rosy scenario for Democrats. Most pollsters predicted that the party would extend its control in the Senate, winning Republican seats in Arkansas, Colorado and New Hampshire, while holding on in Georgia, Louisiana and Minnesota. Only Missouri and South Dakota were in doubt.

But after all the ballots were counted, Republicans had made history, proving pundits, pollsters and prognosticators patently incorrect. They increased their margin in the House and regained control of the Senate. They are now in charge of the government.

It's not just the election outcome that will shape the Washington landscape, however. It's also how and why the GOP scored its triumph that matters.

These are the three factors on which the election hinged. Democrats had no message. Republicans had the cash. And President Bush had the guts to put his popularity on the line by spending most of October on the hustings. Let's examine how each is likely to affect policy in the coming year.

Democrats had no message, because for the last two years they couldn't agree on two major domestic and foreign policy questions: taxes and war. Some Democrats supported the President's $1.3 trillion tax cut. Some didn't. Some of them supported the President's plan to attack Iraq. Some didn't.

Don't look for them to find their way out of the policy wilderness anytime soon. The divisions in their caucus remain, and it will be challenging for Democrats to sing in unison. In the near term, they will have difficulty bucking the Republican tide, even though GOP congressional margins are slender.

Republicans had the cash, because corporate America saw the Bush White House as the strongest ally it's had in Washington for generations. Industry, which used to split its political giving evenly, tilted more than two to one toward Republicans in the last campaign cycle.

The election outcome will strengthen the hand of industry, produce a pro-business federal agenda and, as a corollary, accentuate the tilt in campaign giving toward the Republicans. Look for tax and trade policies favorable to business to be pushed hard at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Finally, George Bush put his political future on the line by campaigning for Republican candidates in key states. Had they lost, he would have found himself a much weakened chief executive. But virtually all of them won, and Republicans in Congress owe him big time.

In the near term, the White House will call the shots, and Congress will abide. By contrast with the last two years, when Republican appropriators rebelled against White House calls for fiscal restraint, the President's forthcoming budget will be a true blueprint for congressional action. On a host of policy issues, including defense, energy and the environment, don't look for Congress to block the President's agenda.

Where does that leave science? At best, dangling. At worst, in a deep hole.

Jack Marburger, the President's science advisor, has portrayed him as a strong supporter of science. But the record of the first two presidential budgets, which froze or cut research spending in the physical sciences, does not bode well. With the government facing a $150 or $200 billion shortfall, even absent an impending war with Iraq, the White House is likely to be very chary with dollars for research in the coming year. No doubt, it will be one that challenge's scientists resolve.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette