President Bush's approval of a big farm bill and his protectionism in restricting steel and lumber imports are “simply politics,” says political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

“Yet, the president is known as a free trader and one who favors smaller farm program outlays,” he told Delta Council officers and directors at their annual meeting at Cleveland, Miss.

Referring to “a blistering attack” by the New York Times on the new farm bill, Rothenberg said, “We just have to recognize that politicians are trying to get elected. The president is walking a fine line. He's still for free trade, but Republicans are fragmented and what's being done is all about the economy, jobs, and votes.”

One of the most widely respected political analysts in Washington, who frequently appears on CNN and other television shows, Rothenberg calls himself “a political handicapper — I examine politics cold-bloodedly and try to determine who's going to win or lose, or which side is winning a particular political argument at any given time.”

The United States is now in what appears to be “a long-term period of political equilibrium,” with the country pretty evenly divided on political issues and parties, he says. “The razor-thin closeness of the last election showed how important it is that you participate in the voting process.”

Barring the impact of some cataclysmic event such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, that equilibrium likely will continue into the 2004 elections, Rothenberg says.

“Right now, President Bush's approval ratings are absolutely terrific, averaging about 74 percent in major media polls. The public appears happy with how he's running the country.

“A president is normally evaluated most on the performance of the economy, but Mr. Bush's popularity is being skewed by the events of 9/11. Nobody seems to remember that before then he was in serious trouble on the environment and other major issues, and talk was that he just wasn't up to the job.

“But the aftermath of 9/11 allowed George Bush to remake himself. In a terrible way, he benefited from the tragedy and now polls show three of four people perceive him as a strong, decisive leader.”

Democrats are looking at ways to steer the political tone away from the war on terrorism, Rothenberg says. “They want to bear down on Social Security, the economy, a prescription drug benefit, and other domestic issues where they feel they have a strategy advantage.

“As long as the debate is about the war, the president is in good shape. Nothing yet has really cracked his political armor. The Democrats are hoping these other issues will turn the situation around, and it may work because seniors vote heavily.”

The anniversary of 9/11 will generate “all kinds of retrospectives,” Rothenberg says. “How will that affect elections? It'll be very difficult to run political attack ads against a background of remembering 9/11, with all the opportunities to say, ‘Let's come together again.’

“I think politics will be suspended for several weeks, but that we'll be back to business as usual by November.”

The fight for control of the Senate is very important, he says. “The defection of Jim Jeffords of Vermont from the Republican Party to Independent changed the entire direction of the Senate, and the Republicans need to pick up only one seat to have a tied Senate, where the vice president breaks the tie.”

Republicans are defending about 20 seats, he notes, the Democrats only 14, “but the Republicans have done the best job of recruiting candidates that I've seen in 20 years. It will be very tight — there could be a one seat advantage either way.”

“Only about a tenth of the House is up for election, and with not that many races, there's a lot of attention to individual seats. It could range all the way from a Republican gain of a seat or two to a gain of three or four for the Democrats. Either way, it won't be enough to change the tenor of the House very much.”

The Democrats need only six seats to gain a majority in the House, Rothenberg notes, but it's not out of the question that the Republicans could find themselves with a majority in the House and Senate for the first time since 1994 — with a Republican president giving them a grand slam.

But that could have drawbacks, he says.

“Bill Clinton, with a Republican Congress, had the ability to play off the opposition and get what he wanted. But if a president's unable to do that, then he and his party are held responsible for everything, and that's a difficult position to be in — it's like trying to herd cats.

“There are some Republican strategists who like things the way they are now, so they can blame the Democrats when things don't go their way. If they're in control of both houses, they can't do that.”


e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com.