If you were to choose a single race that sums up what’s at stake this fall, it would have to be the one in South Dakota. To political insiders in Washington, the matchup between Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson and his Repub-lican challenger, Rep. John Thune, is considered this season’s defining contest between the two national parties. While Johnson is a protege of Democratic Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Thune is the hand-picked candidate of President George W. Bush. So it’s no surprise that Daschle and Bush have gone all out for their respective men, raising gobs of out-of-state money, recruiting talented campaign workers, and extracting promises of aid from friendly special interest groups.

After all, what’s at stake isn’t just the careers of two able politicians, but the entire balance of power in Washington. The GOP already controls the White House, the Supreme Court, and the House of Representatives. The Democrats control the Senate, but by only one vote. Polls of the handful of competitive Senate races indicate that control of the chamber is a toss-up. And while Democrats are optimistic about retaking the House, Republicans are increasingly sure that their larger war chests and a late-campaign public focus on national security threats will keep them in power. So if Johnson loses, and the Democrats don’t win elsewhere, then, for the first time since 1953, the GOP would control both Congress and the White House for at least two years. Throw in the Supreme Court, and Republicans will have won control of the entire federal government for the first time since 1929. With that kind of power, it would take only a few years for the Republican Party to fundamentally reshape American government in ways that can’t be undone no matter which party wins in 2004–from more tax cuts that would bankrupt Washington for decades, to a continued unilateralist foreign policy that would wreak further havoc on international institutions, to judicial precedents that would permanently cripple the ability of the federal government to grapple with social and economic problems. By any reasonable measure, the most pivotal issue facing voters in this congressional election is control of Congress itself.

What is surprising is that almost no one is talking about the election this way. These days, Johnson and Thune spend most of their time arguing over who would be a better defender of ethanol subsidies. The hottest election issue in South Dakota is whether meatpackers should be able to own livestock. When George W. Bush breezed through this otherwise little-noticed state to raise a few hundred thousand dollars for Thune, he stuck to farm aid. The only open fight between Bush and Daschle regarding South Dakota so far was last April, when Bush almost didn’t invite Daschle to the opening of a local ethanol plant. Johnson rarely even mentions Washington–except to say that, if elected, he would work closely with President Bush to bring home the bacon for South Dakota.

But Johnson’s not alone. Across the country, Democratic politicians don’t want to talk about the one thing that every Democratic politician is worrying about. Instead, conventional wisdom holds that “issues”–Social Security, prescription drugs–are the best route to victory. Even this past summer, as metastasizing corporate scandals and Bush’s falling poll numbers emboldened the Democrats to launch more attacks on the White House and the GOP, party leaders cautioned that candidates should stick to the policy agenda. Republicans, meanwhile, are smart enough not to draw attention to their potential sweep. As a result, even though most Americans–especially swing voters–strongly prefer divided government, most voters aren’t really aware that Republicans are one seat away from controlling all three branches of the federal government for the first time in more than 80 years. It’s a mistake that could very well cost the Democrats this election–and much more.

To understand why one-party rule under the Republicans would be so momentous this time around, it’s necessary to understand why it wasn’t such a big deal last time. The two years during which GOP President Dwight Eisenhower presided over a Republican Congress were relatively placid. One cause was the political gulf between Eisenhower, a moderate Republican handpicked by the Dewey branch of the party, and his congressional wing, which was controlled by rock-ribbed Taft Republicans. Another was the general passivity of the party–and politics–as a whole. Although congressional Republicans occasionally got out of hand, as they did during Joe McCarthy’s inquisition, they had more or less accommodated themselves to the New Deal. Significant policy change, like school desegregation, tended to begin and end in the courts.

Nor was Eisenhower an exception. During the 20th century, more than half of all elections have produced unified government. But those governments have been paralyzed, passive, or moderate as often as they’ve been productive, active, or radical. Herbert Hoover was a famous do-nothing during the two years his party controlled Congress. Theodore Roosevelt had big plans but was fought constantly by his own Republican Congress, while Harry Truman’s accomplishments came in spite of the Southern conservative Democrats who ran Congress during the first four of his six years. And Ronald Reagan had a massive political impact on the country despite never having a Republican majority in the House.

What matters most, it turns out, is less the unity itself than the political temper of the president, the character of the leadership in Congress, and the ideological coherence–or lack thereof–of the party in power. And only twice before in the 20th century have the powers of unified government been yoked to an active, coherent party under a popular president: the first six years of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, and the first two years of Lyndon B. Johnson’s second term. Each president came into office on a landslide that gave the majority party ideological coherence and produced, in turn, tectonic shifts in national policy–the New Deal under Roosevelt and the Great Society under Johnson.

So what would the government look like under President George W. Bush, House Speaker Dennis J. Hastert, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and Chief Justice William Rehnquist? Far closer to the FDR/LBJ model than to the Eisenhower model. Today’s GOP is more ideologically coherent and more politically disciplined than at any point in the party’s modern history–enough, in fact, to overcome slim congressional majorities and lack of a public mandate. The party’s few congressional moderates are cowed and marginal; its leadership is almost exclusively Southern and conservative. Today’s GOP is also an activist party, with a sweeping and, in some respects, radical conservative agenda for reversing the existing political order. “Given the deeply conservative character of this administration and the deeply conservative character of the Republican Party at this moment,” says Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley, “this could be a moment in which very dramatic changes could occur.”

But don’t take Brinkley’s word for it. As it happens, Americans had a chance to test-drive this particular scenario. During the first four months of Bush’s presidency, when the GOP controlled both the House and the Senate, Republican rule was ruthlessly partisan and deeply radical.

Early on, Republican Washington battled to place a controversial and polarizing ex-senator, John Ashcroft, in the highest law enforcement office in the land. Republican Washington used its majorities in the House and Senate to reverse the promulgation of groundbreaking new workplace safety regulations, summarily dismissing a 10-year review process that was launched by the first Bush administration. On the domestic policy front, the GOP’s chief accomplishment was the passage of two fiscally hazardous tax cuts, one a 10-year cut on marginal tax rates and another temporarily eliminating the estate tax–each of which was presaged on a series of audacious lies. (To take just one: Bush frequently claimed that “by far the vast majority of my tax cuts go to the bottom end of the spectrum,” which was demonstrably untrue–unless the “bottom end of the spectrum” were defined as the “poorest” 99.99 percent of the country.) On the foreign policy front, Republican Washington studiously ignored the growing Middle Eastern crisis, holding that the right policy was ipso facto the opposite of what the Clinton administration had done.

In just a few months, Republican Washington also produced an unpopular energy bill consisting mostly of handouts to the petroleum industry; canned a new, tougher standard for arsenic in the nation’s water supplies; reinstituted a gag order on foreign family planning programs; and passed a Patients’ Bill of Rights so toothless that nobody remembers it anymore. When an energy crisis struck California, Republican Washington for months ignored pleas from the West Coast and refused to ask the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to stop price-gouging–instead preferring to “watch California burn,” as one local congressman put it at the time.

For liberals and most Democrats, of course, this little preview was something of a nightmare. But though it’s hard to remember now, polls showed that they weren’t alone: Most Americans had judged their taste of one-party rule to be sour. By summer 2001, Bush’s approval rating had dropped to the mid-50s–a low that had been reached by only Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton at similar points in their terms. The Democrats had overtaken Bush on the question of who should set the policy agenda in Washington. Across the board, voters wanted more compromise from the White House, not less. And most tellingly, less than half of voters, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll taken in June 2001, wanted the country to continue in the direction Bush was taking it. It was these voters who most loudly applauded Sen. Jim Jeffords’s timely defection from Republican ranks on May 24, which put the Senate in Democratic hands.

But those four months of one-party rule were nothing compared to what the real deal will be like if the GOP wins back the Senate this fall. Unfinished business from 2001 would be up first: permanent repeal of the estate tax; permanent institution of the income-tax cut; passage of Bush’s energy plan (including provisions to drill in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge); a partial-birth abortion ban; money for the technically unfeasible national missile defense system; repeal of the Alternative Minimum Tax; redefinition of the Roadless Area Conservation Rule that protects more than 50 million acres of federal land from logging; and a welter of special-interest corporate tax breaks that didn’t make it into Bush’s big cut. “What changes is that the president’s able to get his agenda considered,” says Charles Black, a leading Republican consultant and former adviser to Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush. “You would have a unified agenda and a predictable order of business.”

That business would almost certainly include a serious effort at tort reform–like eliminating the 200-year-old principle of “joint and several liability” in civil suits, making it easier for corporate defendants to wiggle out of court judgments. Republicans would likely push to have Bush “unsign” the Kyoto accords on global warming and the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, both anathema to many conservatives. Big business lobbyists would fan across the Hill, demanding “regulatory relief”–or federal subsidies, depending on the need–in ways large and small. Congress and the White House might even try to implement one of the three privatization plans put forth by the Commission to Strengthen Social Security, none of them demonstrably likely to make the system solvent over the long term. And now that the Supreme Court’s July ruling in Zelman, et al. v. Simmons-Harris has resuscitated the voucher issue, proponents of “school choice” are already at work building momentum for an “experimental” national voucher program.

But the GOP agenda does not consist merely of policy choices. For conservatives fundamentally opposed to much of what the modern federal government does, changing the size of the game board is crucial. The most significant acts of a unified Republican government would be to wall off particular options, essentially rigging the system to insulate their agenda from future electoral setbacks. Many changes sought by the GOP, for instance, will be the kind that never require reauthorization, which normally permits Congress to tinker with previously passed legislation. Without institutional pressure from Democrats in either chamber, the White House can easily drop federal lawsuits against polluters and other corporate malefactors, inducing political and legal inertia against new lawsuits in the future. Or they can rewrite administrative laws on workplace regulation, establishing bodies of precedent that require enormous political power to overturn.

The preferred tool of retrenchment, however, is cutting taxes. For many voters, tax cuts are an end in and of themselves: a bigger paycheck in the mail. For professional conservatives, however, tax cuts are a means. When Republicans succeed in cutting taxes, Democrats have to waste precious political capital raising them–even when voters, in theory, strongly favor the programs thus preserved. If Democrats aren’t able to do so–as was the case for many years before Bill Clinton did it in 1993–government is starved of revenue, endangering even popular programs like Social Security and Medicare.

And that’s the point. Bankrupt Social Security and Medicare, and you bankrupt two programs that are pillars of the Democratic Party and of Washington’s involvement in national life, denying voters popular government services and, over the long term, divorcing them from the very idea of government as a force for good. Similar thinking animates the conservative mania for education vouchers. That experimental voucher programs have yet to prove effective is of little consequence to conservative strategists, who see them primarily as a way to shrink the government. “If you went to complete school choice, you’d take half the state and local government and make it, in effect, a part of the private sector,” muses conservative strategist Grover Norquist. “If you take Social Security, and allow people to put some of that money in the market, that privatizes a quarter of the federal government. The smarter guys on the right want to accomplish those two things and then the flat tax.”

But even more important than tax cuts, vouchers, tort reform, or the environment are the courts. Ever since the early years of the Republican realignment, control of the federal courts has been the chief long-range goal for conservative activists of the religious and libertarian persuasions. During the 1980s, membership organizations like the Federalist Society groomed future judges, while corporate-funded law and economics programs developed a body of jurisprudence profoundly antithetical to most forms of federal environmental and workplace regulation. During the 1990s, Senate Republicans engineered a vacancy crisis to save slots on the federal bench for the appointees of an eventual GOP president. Were Republicans to gain control of the Senate in November, they would be well-prepared to take advantage of the moment, packing the federal circuits with 45-year-old Antonin Scalias. “If every judge Bush had nominated by April was confirmed tomorrow,” notes Elliot Mincberg, vice-president of People for the American Way, “there would be Republican majorities on 10 of the 13 circuits in the land. Given current projections for retirement, by the end of 2004, a Republican president and Senate could easily have appointed a majority to every federal circuit court in the country.” Tax cuts can be repealed. But judges serve for life.

This vision would rightly alarm any right-thinking Democrat–and the great majority of independent voters, as well. It’s a threat that is real, that won’t go away, and that plays in every swing district in America. But not a single Democrat has bothered to explain the dangers of GOP one-party rule on the campaign trail, in a major speech, or in Congress itself. Why?

For most Democratic politicians, consultants, and strategists, running on a national campaign based on the threat of a GOP takeover runs counter to a vast body of received wisdom on how to win a midterm election. Successful candidates, they argue, are positive, emphasize their personal achievements, and play to purely local concerns. When it’s necessary to articulate broader themes, like saving Social Security, candidates are encouraged to express them as distillations of local values–as in, “Saving Social Security is a Missouri value.” “If you ask people if they want divided government, they say yes,” says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “There’s just no evidence that they vote on that sentiment.”

Partly, it’s because they can’t. Structurally, American elections are stacked against national campaigns. Unlike in, say, Israel or England, Americans don’t pull the lever for a political party on election day; they vote for an individual candidate. And that vote typically hinges on the particular strengths and weaknesses of the candidate and on what are perceived as local issues. “Education is important to people because of your local school,” says Peter Brodnitz, a consultant at the marquee Democratic firm Penn & Schoen, “not because of the federal education system.” Moreover, only a tiny percentage of seats are actually competitive in any given election, most of them in those states and districts with high numbers of “non-aligned” voters who don’t care too much about whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat. Taken together, the result is that issues like party label and control of Congress–which consultants describe as “procedural”–generally don’t drive elections. “Having a check on Bush’ is a bank shot,” says Brodnitz. “It doesn’t have direct application to people’s concerns.”

From time to time, of course, the conventional wisdom goes out the window–and a national campaign actually helps dethrone the majority party. But to overcome this structural inertia, the pros argue, you need some combination of the following: pots of money to fund a national advertising campaign; an effective, influential leader; unpopular opponents; and, if possible, a big national issue that cuts across regional and cultural lines. In 1994, the GOP had almost all of the above. Bill Clinton was suffering a major backlash; the congressional Democrats as a whole were widely perceived as corrupt, dictatorial, and mired in scandal. GOP donors and activists were energized, while the congressional Republicans had a charismatic leader in Newt Gingrich. Nevertheless, several influential Democrats in the White House–including Clinton adviser Harold Ickes, White House pollster Stan Greenberg, and de facto campaign chair Tony Coelho–thought they could counter with their own kind of nationalization. During the summer of 1994, they urged Democratic candidates to frame the coming election as a contest between “Clintonomics” (the success of which had yet to materialize) and “Reaganomics” (which had yet to be discredited in the eyes of voters).

It’s not clear that very many Democratic candidates ever adopted the White House’s suggestions. But in the days after the GOP landslide, Ickes, Greenberg, Coelho, and the nationalization strategy took the blame along with Clinton and his various policy failures, helping to cement the conventional wisdom and scare the Democrats away from anything that even resembled 1994’s campaign. Those who had argued against nationalization, such as Bob Squire, Mark Penn, and Dick Morris, rose to become the party’s top strategists. Over the next few years, their line of thinking would come to dominate the party’s approach not just to campaign strategy, but also to national politics at the day-to-day level. (What were Morris’s micro-issues–school uniforms, the V-chip–if not an attempt to localize the presidential agenda?)

If anything, the case against nationalization has seemed especially strong this year. The Republicans have the bully pulpit and the most popular politician in America, George W. Bush. Electorally, the bulk of open or competitive races are in states like Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Georgia, and North Carolina, where it doesn’t pay to advertise your party affiliation. Other elections hinge on idiosyncratic local issues, like the proposed demolition of Oregon’s Condit Dam (the key issue between Democratic incumbent Brian Baird and GOP challenger Trent Matson). The party has no unifying national leader. Without the White House, the Democrats lack the infrastructure to formulate a national message–or the money to get it out. The only national issue that cuts across districts and states is the war on terrorism, and while it won’t give Republicans as big a boost this fall as they once hoped for, it certainly won’t play to Democratic strengths. For many Democrats, begging for a chance to block Dubya just won’t cut it. “I would not want to bank my campaign,” says Mark Mellman, “on convincing voters that you should vote for me so that Democrats can stop bad Republican bills.”

Even the corporate scandals have a downside: It’s not clear that voters blame the Republicans, especially after Congress’s near-unanimous passage of accounting reform legislation in August. Indeed, by the end of the summer, top Democrats like Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, had already concluded that the Democrats should back down and “stick to bread-and-butter issues”–Social Security, prescription drugs, and education. Instead of using Enron, WorldCom, and Andersen to build a case against Republican stewardship of Congress, Democratic staffers have scoured the records of individual GOP candidates in search of shady business deals and tax arrangements that could be painted as Enronesque. In other words, the Democrats have taken a potential national issue and tried their utmost to localize it.

But the conventional wisdom has one big problem: It hasn’t worked. In each of the three election cycles since 1994, the Democrats have run mostly local, issues-based campaigns that rarely involved a public discussion about taking back Congress–a theme, many Democrats felt, that would make them sound power-hungry. In each election, Republican willingness to downplay their own agenda and campaign on Democratic themes neutralized most of the Democrats’ advantages on “bread-and-butter issues.” And in each one, the Democrats have made only marginal and diminishing gains in the House: nine seats in 1996, five in 1998, and two in 2000. (In the Senate they have done better, but only just enough to win parity in 2000. In 1996 and 1998, the Democrats lost two seats and won zero, respectively.) Granted, there are reasons that go beyond style and message–the declining number of competitive seats, for instance, and the severe atrophy of the congressional party’s campaign machinery. It may also be that gerrymandering has finally pushed congressional elections into a stalemate, insulating the GOP from the possibility of a single major election loss.

But perhaps the conventional wisdom isn’t so wise after all. Take Bush’s popularity. For a year, Democrats have been mesmerized by a single number: Bush’s job approval rating, which, though down from its previous highs, continues to be strong. They’ve paid much less attention to the underlying numbers–the ones that tell the story of a public united behind the commander-in-chief, but unhappy with the administration’s policies and deeply distrustful of the Republican majority in the House. At the end of 2001, according to the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, nearly three-quarters of adults nationwide thought the country was going in the right direction. By August that number was at 47 percent. In mid-summer, the major polls showed an average 5-point generic Democratic advantage at the polls; by late August, CNN/USA Today/Gallup had the Democrats up by 8 percent. The point is that the Democrats don’t need to campaign against Bush or engineer a landslide to keep the Senate or take back the House. They just need to get a small number of Americans to vote in practice the preference for divided government they already display in theory.

Would that require a large campaign chest and a national advertising campaign? Campaign consultants say so–but campaign consultants always say so, because that’s how they make the most money. That doesn’t mean they’re always right. By most accounts, the Democrats’ biggest election success since 1994 was 1998, when they were expected to lose more than a dozen seats and instead picked up five. But 1998 was the Democrats’ most underfunded campaign in 10 years. Fundraising scandals at the Democratic National Committee in 1997 had scared away donors and decimated the party’s finance operations; as a result, the DNC had less than half its usual budget for political operations and the DCCC had less than $2 million for radio and TV ads. So, what was their secret weapon? Clinton’s impending impeachment trial, which convinced many moderates that the GOP was too dangerous to be in charge.

The challenge for Democrats today, then, is to make voters aware that the GOP is no less dangerous this time around. But Democrats don’t need the White House in order to get their message out. For months after the Republican landslide of 1980, Ronald Reagan’s mastery of the bully pulpit, a governing majority (190 House Republicans plus 40 or so Boll Weevils), and overwhelming popularity left the Democrats a voiceless and disorganized opposition party. The rump Democratic caucus was considered irrelevant; House Speaker Tip O’Neill was considered “big, fat, and out of control,” as one GOP congressman put it. But eventually, a young O’Neill aide named Chris Matthews set about turning his boss into Reagan’s opposite number–convincing the television networks, for instance, to let O’Neill respond to almost any announcement the administration made. Under O’Neill, the Democrats became an effective opposition party, positioned themselves to take advantage of the early ’80s recession, and gained 20 seats in the fall of 1982.

Today’s top Democrats are already in high demand for chat shows, television interviews, and other kinds of unpaid exposure. They don’t need to beg for airtime. If just the top Democrats in town–Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Terry McAuliffe, and the rest–spent a week talking about what would happen if the Republicans take control, buzz alone would create national exposure. And if that fails, there’s another set of messengers to enlist: the 400 or so Democrats campaigning across the country this fall. No Democrat, even the most conservative one, likes the idea of the Republicans running the country alone.

The Democrats, of course, may choose to play it safe. They can choose to spend the next month talking about why their prescription drug plan is better than the GOP’s prescription drug plan. They can warble on about Democratic “priorities.” They can pray for Bush’s economic team to continue making stupid gaffes, for voters to blame Republicans for the corporate scandals, and for terrorists to elude the FBI until December. They probably won’t lose very many seats. They may even gain a few.

But it’s a hell of a gamble. By refusing to tell voters what’s really at stake, the Democrats are relegating the election to a mere contest of policy proposals, proposals that few Republicans will claim to be against. In the end, no issue will matter unless the Democratic Party gives voters a real reason to vote against the Republicans–one that encompasses all the agenda items and forces Americans to think about the real consequences of Republican rule. If the country wakes up on November 6 with a Republican House and Senate, the Democrats may spend the next 20 years wondering why they didn’t.

Nicholas Confessore

Nicholas Confessore is a New York–based political and investigative reporter at the New York Times and a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2002 to 2004.