What happened on November 3?

November 6, 2009

When voters get the chance to ratify the status quo or "throw the bums out," it doesn't matter that the Republicans' policies are disastrous for working people. The Democratic bums get tossed out just the same.

THERE ARE two wrong interpretations of the November 3 election results circulating in the political establishment and among its chatterers.

One interpretation, the one coming from the White House, says they don't matter at all. The other, coming mainly from the Republican Party and the likes of Glenn Beck, holds that the elections were a sharp repudiation of Barack Obama's "big government" agenda and a signal that Americans are ready to embrace the right wing again.

Let's take the second one first. Are the conservatives' biggest gains--a sweep of top statewide offices in Virginia, the governorship of New Jersey, and repealing gay marriage in Maine--a sign that the right is back in the saddle again?

Before the Republicans spins themselves back into the Congressional majority in 2010 and the White House in 2012 (President Palin?), it's worth remembering that the president's party has lost the Virginia governor's race for nine straight elections now. And as for the results of odd-year elections before congressional midterms predicting the results the following year, that's only been true about half of the time in recent history. They're as accurate as a coin flip.

Second, while the winning Republican candidates--Bob McDonnell in Virginia and Chris Christie in New Jersey--are standard-issue conservatives, they didn't highlight right-wing ideology in their campaigns. McDonnell successfully camouflaged his hard Christian Right beliefs by emphasizing local issues, such as Virginia's chronic underinvestment in infrastructure.

In New Jersey, for most of the campaign against Democrat Jon Corzine, Christie coasted, assuming Corzine's unpopularity would carry him to victory. Eventually, it did. And as the campaign descended into a mudslinging contest, Christie continued to speak in platitudes. In the end, New Jersey voters tossed out Corzine, but they left the New Jersey state assembly with a virtually unchanged Democratic majority.

IF THE Republican wins in Virginia and New Jersey weren't that surprising, the Democratic victory in the congressional special election in New York's 23rd district was more of a shocker. For the first time since 1872, a Democrat will represent this large, mostly rural district running across the northernmost part of the state. From a purely electoral point of view, this has to be considered a major defeat for conservatives, who turned this race into a battle for the soul of the Republicans.

For weeks, members of the right-wing menagerie--from Fox News to Sarah Palin to the Tea-Party Patriots--championed the candidate of the third-party Conservatives, Douglas Hoffman, as the great hope against the mainstream Republican, Dede Scozzafava. They succeeded in forcing Scozzafava out of the race. But while the conservatives were busy high-fiving themselves, the Democrat Owen won.

The Tea Partiers took the defeat in stride, with Palin declaring: "The race for New York's 23rd District is not over, just postponed until 2010. The issues of this election have always centered on the economy--on the need for fiscal restraint, smaller government and policies that encourage jobs. In 2010, these issues will be even more crucial to the electorate."

Hoffman, a robotic reciter of Ayn Rand-style talking points, lost in large part because Palin's "issues of this election" had no bearing on the concerns of people in the 23rd district. If it can't win in a longtime Republican district in New York, will the pure free-market ideology that Hoffman and his Tea Party crew are pushing sell in the country as a whole?

Here, the right wing might want to pause before breaking out the champagne. One of the lesser-reported stories of the 2009 election was the results of bond issues and other referenda in different parts of the country. According to one election-night report, 10 of the largest 12 bond issues--ballot measures that get voters approval to borrow funds to build hospitals, schools and infrastructure--passed. And two right wing-sponsored "taxpayer bill of rights" referenda lost in Washington and Maine.

Despite the discontent resulting from the current economic crisis, the right wing's tax-cutting, government-slashing message has yet to recover its force. The Tea Partiers are still appealing only to a minority of a minority.

DESPITE THIS, however, the White House and Democrats would be kidding themselves if they really thought the defeats in this election are nothing for them to be concerned about.

Virginia has to be particularly alarming to Democrats. It's not so much that the Republicans won there. It's how they won there.

When Obama won the state in 2008--the first Democratic presidential candidate to take Virginia in 44 years--he did so by reshaping the electorate. Almost one in three voters was Black, Latino or Asian. And 21 percent were voters under the age of 30. In other words, the 2008 electorate represented 21st century Virginia.

It didn't help that the Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds spent much of his time criticizing health care reform, opposing the Employee Free Choice Act and lining up with the coal companies against "cap and trade" environmental legislation. As Ben Tribett, writing on the Firedoglake blog, pointed out, every time Deeds took one of these right-wing positions, polls showed that fewer self-identified Democrats said they would show up at the polls.

As a result, the people who turned up to vote in Virginia in 2009 were much more likely to have voted for John McCain in 2008 than the overall Virginia electorate in 2008.

The White House is pointing to exit poll data showing that Obama wasn't a factor in voters' choices on Election Day. But that's an evasion. Even if the 2009 elections turned on local issues, the electorate's attitude to the president and to Washington shapes the overall political atmosphere.

Obama's 2008 campaign mobilized young and minority voters, and attracted independent voters, because it convinced them they were voting for "change you can believe in," and breaking with the "old ways" and "conventional wisdom" of Washington.

Yet in his less than one year in office, Obama has proven to be much more of a captive of Washington conventional wisdom and much slower to deliver on "change" than the people who voted for him expected. After tailoring his 2008 appeal to a "middle class" fed up with Washington self-dealers and Wall Street fat cats, whose recklessness helped wreck the economy, he and the Democrats have shown themselves to be quite cozy with the lobbyists and banksters.

If Obama and the Democrats continue down this path, they are setting themselves up for a shellacking in 2010. Even if the tentative economic recovery takes hold over the next year, economists predict that unemployment will still hover at 10 percent or higher. If voters aren't seeing real relief in their own lives--and even worse, seeing the government hand billions to Wall Street fraudsters--they will be in an even fouler mood than they were this year.

Given the two-party setup in American politics, where voters get their chance every two years to ratify the status quo or "throw the bums out," it won't matter that the Republicans' policies and ideology are disastrous for working people. The Democratic bums will get tossed out just the same.

Anti-incumbent--and particularly anti-fat cat-incumbent sentiment--seemed to drive the electorate in 2009. The defeat of ex-Goldman Sachs chair Corzine and billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's closer-than-expected reelection against a no-name candidate show this. This could build into a wave in 2010.

The worst conclusion that Democrats and their supporters can draw from the elections is that they must move to the "center"--i.e., to the right--to placate "swing voters" who went for the Republicans in 2009. The Democrats are already governing from "the center," and that certainly didn't do them much good in mobilizing their base voters in 2009.

Politicians are, by nature, cowardly and risk-averse. So we're likely to hear a lot from them about how the Democrats mustn't go "too far," "must reconnect with the people," yada, yada, yada.

If liberal interest groups follow that lead and don't pressure the Democrats for their demands, the end result will be more rotten compromises with the right, more demoralization for their supporters--and a right-wing comeback that seemed impossible only a few months ago.

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