Foreign Policy Expected To Dominate U.S. Midterm Elections

By Eric Green
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - More so than at any other time since the Vietnam War era in the late 1960s and early 1970s, foreign policy is the dominant issue for midterm elections being held in the United States on November 7, says a political analyst from the Council on Foreign Relations.

Nancy Roman, vice-president and director of the independent, nonpartisan organization's Washington Program, said in an October 23 interview that most U.S. midterm elections reflect citizens' concerns over such domestic issues as jobs, education, highways and taxes.

She agreed with another political commentator, syndicated columnist George Will, who said that midterm elections serve as a way to "take the nation's temperature" on whether the country is moving in the right direction, while every four years the nation selects a president responsible for formulating domestic and foreign policy.

Roman said that "as someone who loves U.S. congressional politics and follows them professionally and as an avocation, [I can say that] the midterms always have a strong domestic component, and the 2006 elections will too."

Midterm elections occur in the United States every four years, between presidential elections, when voters elect legislators to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives as well as one-third of the members of the Senate.  (See related article.)

Roman said that what makes the 2006 midterms different is the number of foreign policy issues "that tend to be registering [with the voters] when you do public opinion polls.  When you ask people what they most care about, Iraq is the Number 1 single issue.  Not since Vietnam is there a foreign policy issue that would dominate" the political discussion.

Foreign policy concerns with Iran, North Korea and nuclear proliferation also rank high in voter interest, said Roman.

"Definitely, foreign policy is something the voters are paying closer attention to" in 2006 "than they traditionally do" for the midterms, said Roman.

She said the midterms historically have affected U.S. presidential elections held two years later, and the 2006 vote is likely to have a similar effect.  The midterm vote between presidential elections, she said, works as a type of "correction" for electoral politics, in that the American electorate often prefers to have divided government, meaning that one political party should not hold sway over both the executive and the legislative branches.

Roman predicted the public might impose a "check" on Republican President George Bush by making the Democrats the majority party in at least one congressional chamber. This would follow the precedent of the "mid-course correction" of 1994 when the public "wanted a check" on Democratic President Bill Clinton and elected Republicans to take control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1954.

Roman said, however, that she does not see the 2006 midterms having a huge bearing on U.S. foreign policy over the next two years, no matter which political party gains control of Congress.

The "difficult problems" the United States faces "are difficult no matter who is in charge," she said.  Roman added that if the Democrats gain control of Congress, there might be more congressional hearings and scrutiny about Iraq, and with the public "striving for a reduced U.S. engagement in Iraq, there will be political pressure on that end."

In terms of how quickly U.S. troops might be withdrawn from Iraq, "I don't think there will be a big difference," because it is the White House, in conjunction with the U.S. military, that is making decisions on the number of troops in that country, she said.

Another political analyst, Jennifer Duffy, editor of the Washington-based Cook Political Report, said in an interview that the midterm elections could serve as an outlet for voter dissatisfaction with the party in power.

She described that phenomenon as the "six-year-itch," when voters show that dissatisfaction in the middle of the incumbent president’s second four-year term.  She cited the year 1958 when the Republicans lost 48 House seats and 13 Senate seats six years after their party's candidate, Dwight Eisenhower, won the presidency.

Duffy said a similar big loss for the Democrats occurred in 1966, six years after Democrat John F. Kennedy won the presidency; and for the Republicans in 1974 and 1986.  One of the exceptions to the six-year-itch rule occurred in 1998 when Democrats gained seats in the Congress in the middle of Bill Clinton’s second term.

Duffy said 2006 is "definitely a six-year-itch election" when the Democrats are considered likely to make gains in the Congress six years into George W. Bush’s presidency.

Another observer of the U.S. political scene, Merle Black of Emory University in Atlanta, said there is nothing unusual about the voter's focus on Iraq and the "War on Terror." "You would expect that" in 2006, the same as with elections held during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam conflict, he said in an interview.

President Bush is not campaigning before large audiences in 2006, which represents a marked change from the 2002 midterms, when the president had higher approval rates among voters than he enjoys in 2006, Black said.

He said he doubted, however, that the midterms of 2006 would foreshadow the presidential race in 2008. He points out that in 1994 the Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress, but two years later, Democrat Bill Clinton easily won re-election.

The successful candidate in the 2008 presidential race, he said, "depends on unknown events" that will occur in the two years between the midterms and the presidential race.

"Two years is a long time in politics," he said, adding with a chuckle: "We don't know the future.  I don't [even] know what's going to happen the rest of the afternoon."

For more information, see 2006 Midterm Elections.