Predicting where we are headed politically is never easy, but it's a task that seems almost impossible today. When we are faced with an unprecedented situation, historical patterns are seldom helpful.

Before the September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the economy was teetering on the edge of a recession. And the non-Social Security and Medicare portion of the federal budget surplus had essentially evaporated. President Bush's job-approval ratings were dropping toward 50 percent. National optimism that the nation was on the right track was also dropping. Congressional Republicans' anxiety had begun to shift to outright fear that the historical pattern of the President's party suffering midterm election losses was likely to happen again next year. Then came tragedy.

Because the economy almost always drives politics, the economic situation seems to be a good place to start in assessing where the nation goes from here politically. According to Thomas Gallagher, a Washington-based political economist for ISI Group, "The economy has been altered in ways we just can't predict."

Many economists are now saying that the effects of

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