'Events, Dear Boy, Events'

When Harold Macmillan became Britain's prime minister, he was asked what would determine his government's course. He replied with Edwardian languor: "Events, dear boy, events." As he well knew. An event--the 1956 Suez debacle--had catapulted him into 10 Downing Street. An event--the sex-and-spies Profumo scandal--would grease the skids under him in 1963.

Pesky things, events. As usual, they are in the saddle, riding mankind. They will shape this election year. The first shaping event has happened, in Houston.

Enron's sudden collapse from overdoses of arrogance and villainy has become the second most significant event--second only to September 11--since George W. Bush became president. It is just the sort of event that Republicans do not want to raise the curtain on in an election year. It is not like the Credit Mobilier scandal (corrupt contracting in the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad, 1865-69) or the Teapot Dome scandal (fraudulent leasing of federal oil reserves), both of which involved malfeasance by people in Washington. Enron is, in a way, worse.

Enron is a systemic failure, implicating the range of institutions, from accounting firms to boards of directors, that are designed to justify broad public confidence in the functioning of what is supposed to be a mature capitalist system--confidence that is increasingly indispensable, given the rapidly broadening demographics of stock ownership. (For example, in 1980 less than 6 percent of Americans participated in mutual funds; today more than half do.) As an economic scandal--a scandal of behavior in the private sector--it may be the worst in American history. But even though the Enron story is--so far--not much of a scandal involving the political class, it is rich in elements potentially awkward for Republicans.

It involves Texas. (Anti-Texan stereotyping is a kind of "profiling" that many liberals approve.) It involves a (formerly) big corporation. It involves the fifth (Arthur Andersen) and 12th (Enron) largest givers to the Bush campaign. It suggests an insufficiency of government regulation relative to the quantity of private-sector vice.

Enron's prosperity was a bubble produced by trickery and pricked by reality. Bush's stratospheric approval ratings, being the result of solid performance, will not suddenly collapse, but cannot continue. And judging by the thumping Republican losses in the two important elections in 2001--they lost the New Jersey and Virginia governorships by 14 and 5 points, respectively--his popularity is not transferable. Granted, he did not campaign in either state. But the reason he did not--the war--may inhibit his political campaigning this year.

In 2000, for the first time since 1952, Democrats failed to win either the White House, the House or the Senate. They now control the Senate. Can they capture the House this November?

Democrats have gained seats in three consecutive elections. Their three-seat gain in 1996 was not surprising: there was bound to be a corrective rebound from the 1994 cymbal-crash elections in which Democrats lost 53 seats, ending 40 years of Democratic control of the House. Besides, it was a presidential election year in which the Democratic incumbent coasted to a comfortable victory. The continuing rebound from 1994 also helps explain why Democrats gained four seats in 1998--just the second time in 34 elections since the Civil War that the party holding the presidency gained House seats in midterm elections. In 2000, Democrats gained one seat.

If Democrats gain seats in a fourth consecutive election, it will be only the fourth time a party has done that in the 69 elections since the Civil War. (Not since the Depression. Democrats gained in 1906, 1908, 1910 and 1912. Republicans gained in 1914, 1916, 1918 and 1920. Democrats gained in 1930, 1932, 1934 and 1936.) How likely are they to gain the six seats needed to produce Speaker Dick Gephardt in 2003?

Charles Cook, one of the most acute political analysts, notes that Republicans cannot count on benefiting from an impulse to rally around the commander in chief's party during a midterm election. In the only such election during World War I (1918, six days before the armistice), President Wilson's Democratic Party lost six Senate seats and 19 House seats--and control of both houses. In the midterm election during World War II, in 1942, FDR's Democrats lost 45 seats. In the two midterm elections after the escalation in Vietnam and before the negotiated de-escalation, Johnson's Democrats lost 47 seats in 1966 and Nixon's Republicans lost 12 in 1970.

In 1992, the first election after the last redistricting, there was tremendous churning of the House membership: 65 representatives retired and 43 were defeated. But in 1992 the national mood regarding Congress was unusually dyspeptic--remember that year's scandal surrounding members' overdrafts from the House bank--and the term-limits movement was rapidly gaining strength. This year, only 24 House members (16 Republicans, eight Democrats) are retiring, some from politics, others to run for senator or governor.

This year, redistricting, by both parties in the states they control, has been, even more than usual, devoted to protecting incumbents. In most cases that has meant making safe seats even safer. As a result, says Cook, the number of even potentially competitive races in 2002 has shrunk "enormously," to perhaps 50, of which perhaps only 24--a dozen now held by each party--will be hotly contested. Perhaps none of California's 53 races will be really competitive. So for Democrats to gain the six seats necessary for control of the House, "they must win 18 of the 24 closest races, a 75 percent victory percentage." Cook notes that six is a small number out of 435, but 75 is a very high percentage.

Election Day is more than twice as distant from today as September 11 is. Which means there is ample time for the political climate to be conditioned by the unexpected. Remember the rule: There are knowns, unknowns and unknown unknowns. The last include events, dear reader, events.