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Leadership Vacuum

All second-term presidents eventually become lame ducks, but President Bush is looking more and more like a truly crippled duck. He is plagued by miserably low approval ratings, an unpopular war, a stalled legislative agenda, gigantic federal budget deficits, and several scandals within his administration and party.

Historian Joseph Ellis aptly summarized the president's problems on CBS News' Face the Nation last Sunday, saying that lame ducks can't enforce party discipline, that chickens inevitably come home to roost, and that second-term presidents are so cocooned in the White House that they lose touch with the American people.

With two independent national polls indicating that 43 percent of Americans "strongly disapprove" of Bush's performance, it is difficult to imagine that the president will be able to significantly strengthen his position. Meanwhile, Congress appears unable to provide meaningful leadership or to advance a significant legislative agenda, either before or after the 2006 elections.

House Republicans' once-rigid party discipline has broken down, resulting in a series of embarrassing losses or near-losses. The leadership model that worked so well for Speaker Dennis Hastert when he played good cop to then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay's bad cop isn't nearly as effective with four good cops -- Hastert; Majority Whip Roy Blunt, the acting majority leader; Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier; and Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric Cantor. Where is the S.O.B. who will keep the troops in line?

Looking ahead, the midterm election will probably result in: A) House Republicans losing five to 14 seats and maintaining their majority but without real control, or B) House Republicans losing 15 to 20 seats, giving Democrats a microscopic majority but not real control.

House Republicans have very little chance of padding their majority in a meaningful way. Likewise, odds are against the Democrats' seizing the speaker's gavel with lots of seats to spare. So, just as neither party truly has a working House majority today, neither is likely to have one after next year's elections.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., is one of the most talented people in modern times to hold a Senate leadership position. But most observers, including his own partisans, would concede that he is the weakest majority leader, from either party, in recent memory. Having announced when he was first elected to the Senate that he would serve only two terms, Frist is now a lame duck, making the always difficult task of herding those proverbial Senate cats virtually impossible.

Senate Republicans have a respectable 55-44-1 majority. But because several moderate-to-liberal Republicans often go their own way and because very few Democrats side with the GOP on key votes, the Republicans' advantage is weaker than it looks.

The most likely outcome of the Senate midterm elections is: A) Republicans lose one to five seats, maintaining their majority but slicing their precarious edge even thinner, or B) Democrats pick up six or seven seats, gaining a very slim majority but with no real control.

In 2007, a very cagey Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is almost certain to become his party's Senate leader, with either Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania or, more likely, former Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi stepping into the role of GOP whip. The Senate GOP will probably keep something of a majority; new, stronger leaders will be in front of a smaller army.

The bottom line: This country now has a very serious leadership vacuum, both in the executive branch and in Congress. Regardless of whether Republicans maintain their majorities in both chambers (which still seems most probable), or Democrats grab at least one razor-thin majority, neither party is likely to be in a position to exercise real leadership.

What will it mean for national and international affairs if the world's only true superpower drifts somewhat aimlessly for next three years or so, with no person or party in true control? Can that be healthy for the United States or for the world? Healthy or not, the nation's leadership vacuum probably won't be filled anytime soon.

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