By PAUL KRUGMAN
In a recent interview with The Hartford Courant, Senator Joseph Lieberman said something that wasn’t credible. When the newspaper asked him whether America would be better off if the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives next month, he replied, “Uh, I haven’t thought about that enough to give an answer.”
Why wasn’t this a credible answer? Because anyone with the slightest interest in American politics — a group that obviously includes Mr. Lieberman — is waiting with bated breath to see how this election goes, and thinking a lot about the implications. If the Democrats gain control of either house, no matter how narrowly, the American political landscape will be transformed. If they fail, no matter how narrowly, it will be seen, correctly, as a great victory for the hard right.
The fact is that this is a one-letter election. D or R, that’s all that matters.
It’s hard to think of an election in which the personal qualities of the people running in a given district or state have mattered less. Given the stakes, voters who answer “yes” to the question Mr. Lieberman claims not to have thought about should think hard about voting for any Republican, no matter how appealing. Conversely, those who answer “no” should think hard about supporting any Democrat, no matter how much they like him or her.
There are two reasons why party control is everything in this election.
The first, lesser reason is the demonstrated ability of Republican Congressional leaders to keep their members in line, even those members who cultivate a reputation as moderates or mavericks. G.O.P. politicians sometimes make a show of independence, as Senator John McCain did in seeming to stand up to President Bush on torture. But in the end, they always give the White House what it wants: after getting a lot of good press for his principled stand, Mr. McCain signed on to a torture bill that in effect gave Mr. Bush a completely free hand.
And if the Republicans retain control of Congress, even if it’s by just one seat in each house, Mr. Bush will retain that free hand. If they lose control of either house, the G.O.P. juggernaut will come to a shuddering halt.
Yet that’s the less important reason this election is all about party control. The really important reason may be summed up in two words: subpoena power.
Even if the Democrats take both houses, they won’t be able to accomplish much in the way of new legislation. They won’t have the votes to stop Republican filibusters in the Senate, let alone to override presidential vetoes.
The only types of legislation the Democrats might be able to push through are overwhelmingly popular measures, such as an increase in the minimum wage, that Republicans don’t want but probably wouldn’t dare oppose in an open vote.
But while the Democrats won’t gain the ability to pass laws, if they win they will gain the ability to carry out investigations, and the legal right to compel testimony.
The current Congress has shown no inclination to investigate the Bush administration. Last year The Boston Globe offered an illuminating comparison: when Bill Clinton was president, the House took 140 hours of sworn testimony into whether Mr. Clinton had used the White House Christmas list to identify possible Democratic donors. But in 2004 and 2005, a House committee took only 12 hours of testimony on the abuses at Abu Ghraib.
If the Democrats take control, that will change — and voters should think very hard about whether they want that change. Those who think it’s a good idea to investigate, say, allegations of cronyism and corruption in Iraq contracting should be aware that any vote cast for a Republican makes Congressional investigations less likely. Those who believe that the administration should be left alone to do its job should be aware that any vote for a Democrat makes investigations more likely.
O.K., what about the Senate race in Connecticut, where Ned Lamont is the Democratic nominee, and Mr. Lieberman, who lost the Democratic primary, is running as an independent but promising to caucus with the Democrats if he wins? Is this a case where the man, not the party, is what matters? Only if you believe that Mr. Lieberman’s promise not to switch parties is 100 percent credible.