The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Winning in 2009

Republicans Got the Rejection of Democratic Progressivism They Wanted But Not Necessarily a Corresponding Embrace of Conservatism

“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” is a famous sports cliché attributed to Red Sanders, UCLA head football coach in days of yore. Politicians love sports metaphors, so we can be sure that Republicans will argue the only races that mattered last night were the gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, while Democrats will counter the key contest was the Congressional race in New York’s 23rd District.

At a national level, any impartial analysis must view last night’s election as a major victory for Republicans, if only because the momentum Democrats had been building for the past three years in key races was finally broken. Despite personally campaigning for the Democratic candidates, Republicans gained impressive wins in two states that President Obama carried only a year ago. Always an important and sought-after demographic, Independent voters supported the GOP by nearly two-to-one margins in both states this time around.

None of this was especially surprising, albeit disheartening, for Democrats. One need only have glanced at polls over the past six months to see Obama’s popularity greatly reduced since his election and the Republican candidate well out in front in Virginia. New Jersey was more uncertain but signs of impending doom still hung over it.

However, I must point out another aggrandizement for which Red Sanders is famous. Referring to his Bruins’ legendary rivalry with USC, Sanders once avowed that beating the Trojans was “not a matter of life or death; it's more important than that.” Republicans need to avoid their natural desire to read more into these victories than is actually there.

If they cannot avoid this temptation, then what are they to gather from the New York Congressional race, where Democrat Bill Owens neatly won a seat held by Republicans since the 1890s? And this victory came even after the far-right branch of the Party interjected a die-hard conservative (i.e. the only “real” kind of Republican) into the fray, and bestowed blessing upon him from its highest national figures, when the local GOP decided to run what they saw as an insipid moderate.

The answer is that while 2009 represented every bit the rejection of Obama and Democratic progressive radicalism that Republicans desired, it did not necessarily embrace the return to traditional conservative values by voters that many assumed would automatically flow from this.

Republicans never questioned the basic conservatism of Chris Christie or Bob McDonnell but that is exactly what allowed them to avoid the kind of litmus tests within their own Party that helped doom John McCain last year. Instead, both were able to campaign primarily on positive, pragmatic ideas to control their respective states’ budgets, create jobs, and generally stimulate their local economies.

The result was very different in New York, where right-wingers placed a great deal of emphasis on Doug Hoffman’s social conservatism. What is more, many local political observers agree the rapid inroads made by Hoffman had little to do with conservative credentials and more with his outsider status and push for spending restraint.

The bottom line is that voters, especially Independents, remain extremely distrustful of both Parties and anything that smacks of extremism in ideology or policy. It was a bad year for incumbents, both individual candidates and Parties, that should send a warning shot across the bow for any sitting politicians up for re-election in 2010 or 2012.

The other quirk in these three key races was the presence/absence of a third person upon the results. In New York, the original third-party spoiler candidate was Hoffman, although the formal Republican candidate, Dierdre Scozzafava, eventually took on this role. She endorsed Owens and given that her views were often closer to her Democratic rival, it seems likely that much of the six percent she polled might actually have gone to him, rather than Hoffman, in her absence.

Likewise, although Independent challenger Chris Daggett picked up only five percent of the vote in New Jersey, an Associated Press exit poll found that two-thirds of Daggett voters approved of Obama, suggesting they were more likely to lean Democratic. This might have been enough to make a difference in a race decided by a four point spread.

The third man in Virginia may be less obvious to most but I would argue it was outgoing Governor Tim Kaine. By far the most popular and strongest Democratic challenger in Virginia, term limits barred Kaine from running. That put all the pressure on second-stringer Creigh Deeds, who quickly proved he was not ready for the varsity.

Deed’s greatest mistake was that he simply never ran for Governor, preferring to run instead against the specter of a social conservative gaining office. That technique worked poorly for Democrats in 2004 and just as poorly for Republicans warning about the dangers of unchecked liberalism, later socialism, in 2006 and 2008. Voters are tired of negative campaigning. Neither Party is likely to prevail just by demonizing the other next year.

For Democrats, I believe voter dissatisfaction stems not so much from the direction they are attempting to go as it does an ability to achieve any discernible (by them) progress/results. Legislative victories are the only answer to this dissatisfaction. Healthcare reform may well provide some approval, especially if the disasters predicted upon its passage do not immediately materialize. However, Democrats must pair healthcare with job creation and some budget slashing that will be distasteful to liberals.

Republicans, on the other hand, have every reason to be jubilant over what they achieved last night. Yet they also must keep it in perspective. Much like Democrats, they need to offer solid, practical alternative solutions. Their attempt at creating their own version of a healthcare reform bill is a good first step in this direction.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board observes this morning, “None of this is to say that Mr. Obama or the Democrats are about to be swept out to sea.” In spite of this, I understand the conservative pundits who are convinced this morning that last night’s elections represent the prelude to an inevitable GOP win-back of Congress in 2010 and the White House in 2012. They are simply calling ’em the way they see ’em. I just don’t think they are seeing all that clearly at the moment.

What I see is that when Republicans pair a well-chosen, smart conservative candidate against a weak and unpopular Democratic incumbent, they can achieve positive results. When no Democratic incumbent is present and Republicans pair a well-chosen, smart conservative candidate against a weak and ineffectual Democratic challenger, they can achieve very impressive results indeed.

However, sans an incumbent, when Republicans pair a smart but nationally inserted, ideologically-chosen conservative candidate against a well-chosen, smart Democratic challenger, the results are not always to their liking. What is more, if Obama has lost trust and influence among voters, conservative heavy hitters seem no more persuasive. Sarah Palin may be able to see Russia from Alaska but her perspective of what upstate New York voters really want proved occluded.

Winning in 2009 is the only thing for Republicans. It remains, however, slightly less significant than life or death.

No comments: