What if Richard Nixon hadn't been a crook? No longer merely idle speculation by political trivia buffs, this is an urgent question with powerful implications for the future - more likely the lack thereof - of the Democratic Party today.
It is possible both to overstate and to understate the significance of the midterm elections. On the one hand, the number of seats Republicans gained was small, and the margins in most cases were narrow. GOP candidates received about 53 percent of the votes cast, a significant improvement from 49 percent in 2000. But much of this gain could be washed away if Democratic turnout rises, as is customary, in the next presidential election.
On the other hand, the Republican triumph was more significant because the GOP had to overcome not only the historical fact that the president's party typically loses seats in a midterm election, but an electoral deck stacked against it. Of 34 Senate seats up, 20 were held by Republicans. Of 36 governors up, 21 were Republicans. Yet the GOP held 19 of 20 Senate seats, and won 22 gubernatorial races.
The Republican triumph would have been greater if Libertarians hadn't played the spoiler role for the GOP that the Green Party played for Democrats in 2000. Had it not been for votes drained away by Libertarian candidates, Republicans likely would have won the Senate seat in South Dakota, and gubernatorial races in Wisconsin, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Oregon.
The net gain of two Republicans in the Senate is important legislatively because nominations bottled up in the Judiciary Committee can now be brought to the floor for a vote. It is important politically because with Republican control of the House and Senate as well as the White House, Democrats lack a power base.
Which brings us back to Mr. Nixon. In 1972 he won by the largest landslide in American political history, taking 61 percent of the vote and winning every state save Massachusetts. But people were voting against George McGovern, not for Mr. Nixon or the Republicans. In 1973, Democrats controlled the Senate, 56 to 42, and the House, 242 to 192.
Watergate gave Democrats an issue with which to unravel the Nixon mandate, and their control of both houses of Congress gave them the tools with which to do it. But though Mr. Nixon was a crook, President Bush isn't, and Mr. Bush is as easy to like as Mr. Nixon was to dislike. Democrats in 1973 had the power to investigate Mr. Nixon. Democrats in Washington today have only a limited power to obstruct, which is unlikely to burnish a sullied political image.
For a party that styles itself “progressive,” Democrats spend a great deal of time looking backward - to the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the Great Society. When your bright young stars are Frank Lautenberg, 78, and Walter Mondale, 74, your bench strength isn't great.
Democrats and their allies in the news media say wistfully the President could be in trouble if Saddam is not disarmed and the economy still sputters. That's true.
But if the war in Iraq goes well, and the economy recovers, Mr. Bush could win in 2004 by a landslide that rivals Mr. Nixon's in 1972. And there is no Watergate on the horizon to unravel it.
The 2002 elections were not so important for their own sake, but as a harbinger of things to come.