WASHINGTON — My kids have a great phrase for a new term they've learned -- "SAT words," they could be called -- that just might come in handy down the road. The phrase "inflection point," or the time when a change or alternation in a course or direction occurs, surely is coming in handy this year.
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Clearly such an inflection point happened in the latter half of August, diminishing the momentum Democrats had previously gained and giving President Bush a modest but measurable boost in his approval ratings.
My hunch is that we may be about to see another one. This point will shift momentum the opposite way and tilt the playing field back in favor of Democrats. While we can't see the shift in the polls -- at least not yet -- it would be difficult for a change not to occur given the dramatic adjustment in the political climate over the last week or two.
My theory for a while now has been that the direction of this election would be determined by what people are thinking about in the days or weeks leading into the election. If their minds are on terrorism, national security or falling gas prices, Republicans have a good chance of holding onto their House majority and keeping their Senate losses to around three to six seats. But if the spotlight shifts back to the Iraq war, with other issues like scandals and federal budget deficits entering into the mix, then the odds are the GOP will lose its majority. If this occurs, the possibility of a 20- to 25-seat loss (or even greater) in the House becomes plausible, and the Senate would be in real danger as well.
Several events caused this coming inflection point. First, a leaked report by the Marines' intelligence chief in Iraq said that the Anbar province was effectively lost. Next came excerpts of the latest Bob Woodward book on Bush and his administration's handling of the war, which seems to corroborate many of the worst suspicions of the president's critics. Finally, excerpts of Colin Powell's new book pour more gasoline onto the same fire.
All this negative press comes against a backdrop of greater violence in Iraq and signs that the country, or at least parts of it including Baghdad, is actually sliding into a civil war. These signs had been there, but the recent arrests of terrorist suspects in London and the focus on the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had effectively overshadowed the negative news. That appears to be changing dramatically now.
Supporting the old adage that "when it rains it pours," the GOP now has to deal with the scandal surrounding Republican Rep. Mark Foley of Florida for inappropriate e-mails sent to congressional pages, which includes allegations that the GOP House leadership was not responsive when the information was first brought to members' attention. A renewed focus on Capitol Hill scandals is a major problem for the majority party.
Finally, the recent rash of school shootings may or may not hurt the GOP, but the tragic news certainly isn't going to help Republicans' standing among many moderate and independent suburban voters (though Democrats have played down the gun issue in recent years in an effort to reclaim lost ground among union members and rural America).
For a little more than a month starting in mid-August, the Republican Party got a lot of favorable breaks, rekindling hopes that it could survive this election without getting scalped or decapitated. But those hopes may have been premature. Have we seen dramatic movement away from Republicans in the last few days? No, not yet. But if we've hit another inflection point, watch for momentum to shift yet again -- this time, back to Democrats.
Charlie Cook is a NationalJournal.com contributing editor, weekly columnist for National Journal magazine and the founder and publisher of the Cook Political Report. This column also runs in CongressDailyAM when Congress is in session. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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