THIS is my last column before the elections. As I write it, the Democrats are supposed to take one and maybe both houses of Congress from the Republicans.
I happen to think that would be good for the country, not because I am a yellow-dog or a blue-dog Democrat, but because I believe very strongly that checks and balances are essential mechanisms for a functioning American democracy. The absence of such for six years, with the White House and both houses of Congress in the hands of hard-core Republicans, is the reason for the mess the country is in at the moment. I think primarily of the economic situation and the Iraq war.
Because of their control of the gear shift as well as the steering wheel of state, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and their side-winding sidekicks Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have been able to govern free of the necessity to seek consensus among Americans and their representatives. On the economic side the results have been catastrophic. Job creation has become pathetic. In September only 51,000 new jobs appeared; the economy has to produce 150,000 just to stay even with new entries into the work force. The country's annual rate of growth in the past three quarters has dropped downward from 5.6 percent, to 2.6 percent, to a pallid 1.6 percent in the third quarter, the lowest in years.
The situation in Iraq is horrible. The Iraqis are slaughtering each other, Shiites vs. Shiites, Sunnis vs. Sunnis, Sunnis vs. Shiites, the Kurds staying out of the way and praying for dissolution of the country, and the 140,000 Americans there - more than 100 of whom died in October - are having no effective impact on what is happening in terms of security.
There is a certain amount of fussing around already with respect to the Democrats, as their possible advent to new influence and power seems to be drawing near.
One concern is that those voters who favor the Democrats won't turn out to vote on Tuesday, having absorbed the news that the Democrats are likely to win and thus feeling they needn't bother to vote. Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.) told me last week that the need to go out and vote, not taking a victory in any race for granted, was the central message that he and other Democratic leaders were insisting on in all of their communications with voters now.
A second concern is that, if they win, the Democrats will be just as cash-hungry and corrupt in Washington with respect to the omnipresent lobbyists as the Republicans have been. A bad sign in that regard is that corporate political action committees increased their contributions to Democratic candidates substantially in October. Spending on this campaign is expected to reach $3 billion, including $1 billion from PACs. Democratic candidates are undoubtedly pleased to have more resources for their home-stretch runs. At the same time, they should never imagine for one minute that the lobbyists won't present their bills in terms of demands for access, favors, and legislative earmarks if Democrats win. Lobbyists and PACs are among the really serious problems in Washington under the Republicans.
A third concern is the lack of clarity at this point regarding the central message of the Democrats. As far as I am concerned, this is a non-issue. It certainly will appear in the agenda of the party in the new Congress. It also will appear as the party and the electorate express their preferences among Democratic candidates for the 2008 presidential elections. Part of the reason for the unclear overall Democratic message at this point is also the nature of the current leadership of the party. Who is the leader of the Democrats right now?
It might be the party's presidential candidate in the previous elections, Mr. Kerry. But he lost in 2004. Former President Bill Clinton is probably the Democrats' most popular campaigner and most effective fund-raiser, presumably on behalf of his candidate wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton. But it could not be said that she is "the" leader of the Democratic Party, and the appeal of the former president is as much charm and the longing for the "good old days" among Democrats as it is breathless anticipation of a Hillary candidacy. After that, one gets to a collection of Democratic leaders that include minority leaders Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, both of whom fall short of the role of leading Democrat.
Some of this will straighten itself out after the elections.
Mr. Kerry has set himself a deadline of the end of 2006 for deciding whether he will run in 2008. The Republicans also face confusion in settling on their 2008 presidential candidate, some of which may be dispersed by Tuesday's election results.
What in my view will be most important if the Democrats take one or both houses of Congress is their agenda in the new year. They mustn't imagine that the country will have elected them to hold endless investigations into how the Republicans got the country into the mess that it is in. Instead, a new Democratic majority would have to address directly jobs, wages, the provision and costs of health care, and the other issues the Republicans have put second to their war and cutting the taxes of the rich.
Mr. Kerry underlines forcefully the cardinal point that the Democrats must take great care not to waste their mandate if they are given one.
Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.