WASHINGTON — For almost an hour, the journalists at the Monitor breakfast focused their questions on the war and how well the president was handling it. Naturally. It is the all-important, all-consuming topic.
The pollster John Zogby was our guest, and his plumbing of public opinion was revealing what all other pollsters are finding: that the American people are rallying around the president, and that they think he's doing a superb job as commander in chief.
It was war, war, war in our back-and-forth with this pollster. Absolutely no politics as such. But then, a couple of minutes before the 9 o'clock close, someone asked: "Are you finding that the war is having an effect on the outcome of next year's congressional races?"
"Yes," said Mr. Zogby, highly regarded by reporters because of his track record of accuracy in many political contests. "As of today, Republicans are about two points ahead of Democrats when [voters are] asked whom they would vote for." He then pointed out that last fall, when the Democrats did so well in congressional contests, there had been a sizable Democratic lead over Republicans in advance of the election. "And," he added, "one week before the Sept. 11 attack, the Democrats were ahead by 10 points."
"So," I asked, "what happens as this war intensifies - will that Republican lead over the Democrats in those congressional races continue to increase?" To this, Zogby said, "Probably."
Now this is news. It means that if this increase of the GOP vote continues - a fall-out, of course, from the record-high public approval of President Bush's performance these days - then the Democrats will likely fall short of their effort to pick up the few seats they need to take over the House.
Indeed, it could mean that the Democrats might lose their slim edge in the Senate and that at mid-term, both Houses would be Republican.
In addition - and this is a very risky forecast, with 2004 still far away - if the war continues on until the next presidential election, Bush may be unbeatable for a second term.
We're talking about a "popular" war here - one in which the public remains fully committed to the fight. Not a Vietnam. Certainly, at this time, the long-range public commitment seems to be there, comparable, it seems, to the lasting patriotic support the public gave to our engagement in World War II.
Just before he bid us goodbye, Zogby teased us with this little tidbit: He said his findings showed Sen. Hillary Clinton was drawing strong support among Democrats as a presidential candidate in 2004. He said Mrs. Clinton is seen by Democrats as a particularly able senator, and someone who might be able to unseat Mr. Bush.
Yes, Zogby's findings are, indeed, highly regarded. But Mrs. Clinton as the Democratic presidential candidate three years from now? To begin with, she says she isn't going to run. More than that, during her race for the Senate, she used words that sounded like a pledge that she would serve out her six years. As I think it through, though, I can see a scenario where Mrs. Clinton would find the presidential opportunity in 2004 too appealing not to take.
Remember how, back in 1992, the Democrats' favorite to take on the first President Bush was Mario Cuomo? But after showing a lot of interest in running, Mr. Cuomo finally decided he wouldn't do it. The suspicion among reporters was that he didn't want to take on a president who, at the time, seemed unbeatable. The Gulf War had boosted Bush's popularity sky high.
Then other possible heavyweight candidates among the Democrats - like then-House Speaker Tom Foley, Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, and Sen. Al Gore - expressed a disinterest in running. So it was in this political climate, with the most logical candidates eschewing the big chance, that an outsider, Bill Clinton, stepped in. He wasn't a favorite. And he came within a hair of being wiped out in the primaries, because of personal-conduct disclosures. But he made it, as we know, largely because he had no truly outstanding Democrat as an opponent.
Well, the parallel is not at all precise. For one thing, Mrs. Clinton is far better known nationally than her husband was at the time he threw his hat into the presidential ring.
But when the 2004 election begins to loom, Bush might look unbeatable because of the war. And because Bush looks so formidable, there may not be any prominent Democrat who wants to run. Except Mrs. Clinton. She might just do it. She knows her constituents love her enough to let her break that pledge. Mrs. Clinton, like her husband, is not one to miss an opportunity.