Thursday, November 5, 2009
What Are The Lessons From Election '09? Are Republicans poised for a comeback? Sure. We are a two party nation and - with apologies to the 1840's Whig Party - the party out of power always finds a way to claw back to relevance. Does the GOP have some challenges? Absolutely. Former Virginia Congressman Tom Davis sums it up well when he says the party out of power has a chance now to catch a wave of voter anger about the economy and spending: "The challenge for Republicans is to catch that lightening in a bottle and build a coalition that can lead you to huge congressional gains," Davis said. "But it's easier said than done." Do the elections of Republican governors in New Jersey and Virginia signal danger ahead for the Democrats? Perhaps. I tend to think gubernatorial races normally turn on more local issues - taxes, roads, and schools - but the party in power is due for a gut check. The message from the two statewide races Tuesday may simply be that "it's the economy, stupid." Are Democrats listening? The most interesting races, with potential national implications, took place in New York. The upstate congressional special election illustrates the tensions in the GOP. And the Big Apple's mayoral contest proves, well, I don't have any idea what it proves. Money buys happiness, perhaps. As Governing magazine notes: "The race cost [Michael] Bloomberg an estimated $90 million. In his three races, Bloomberg has spent more of his personal fortune on campaigns than any candidate in U.S. history. Now, Bloomberg and the city face a $5 billion budget deficit." So, let the Republican and Democratic message machines spin Tuesday's results as they will. The election that will tell us more about the longer term direction of the country will take place next November. As CQ notes: "The governing party almost always loses seats in midterm elections, when the voter turnout is lower and the bulk of the energy and enthusiasm is with the opposition party. With 257 House seats, Democrats are nearing the maximum number of seats they could conceivably control under the current Congressional maps. Surveys show the 2010 elections could be unfriendly to incumbents." Many things are in play for both parties, primarily the economy. Will things be a good deal better next summer or fall? Will the GOP be able to unite behind something (or someone) positive as an alternative to Barack Obama? Will Afghanistan be front and center as a kitchen table issue? Could this be an historical parallel? In the mid-term elections in 1934, Franklin Roosevelt's party actually expanded its margins in the Congress even as the economy remained in the ditch. Voters concluded that FDR had an optimistic plan and was both trustworthy in carrying out the plan and focused on the concerns of most Americans. Congressional Republicans in the 1934 mid-term elections were unable to articulate an effective alternative to FDR's still emerging plans and they simply had no counter to his likable disposition and communication skills. Many shrill voices took to calling the president a dictator, a socialist, or worse, but the vast majority of Americans simply didn't buy it. We know Obama has read this history. But knowing history's lessons and applying them is only part of the challenge of political leadership. My guess is the president can still tap a reservoir of patience among most Americans, but by next summer voters will really be judging him.