Thursday, November 05, 2009


US Elections: Special 2009 Edition

Republicans are rejoicing in their victories, but the details tell a more ambiguous story.

The Republican party has had an exceptionally bad few years, reeling from a stint in control of Congress that can charitably be described as an abject abandonment of conservative principles, and descending from there into a morass of ideological retrenchment and electoral collapse. No wonder, then, that Republicans are delighted with the results of this year’s elections: governorships won from Democrats in Virginia (where the popular incumbent, the Democrat Tim Kaine, was not standing because of term limits) and New Jersey (a blue state if ever there was one). Mayoral elections provided further success, and the icing on the cake was Maine – one of the most liberal states in the Union – voting in a referendum to repeal a law legalising gay marriage. Only a couple of off-year House seats spoiled the party.

But national Republicans are wrong to be overjoyed with these results. True, they provide much-needed momentum for the party; true, too, that they are egg in the face for the Obama administration, which had sent the President to campaign in both Virginia and New Jersey (the latter more enthusiastically than the former) for the Democratic candidates. But they are hardly the repudiation of the Obama administration that its critics had hoped for. Exit polls in both states showed a majority of voters approving of the President’s performance thus far. (Both states voted for Obama last November.) The victorious Republican candidates generally distanced themselves from the socially-conservative hardliners ascendant in the party’s internal debates. And the election for the House seat in New York state provided a nasty little surprise for the party.

The relevant district in New York has been represented (in one form or another) by Republicans for over a century, and the election was forced by President Obama tapping its incumbent Congressman to be Secretary of the Army. The district should have been a lock for a resurgent Republican party – and it might well have been, had Republicans stuck with their original candidate, Dede Scozzafava, a local Republican whose moderate tone on issues like abortion and gay marriage matches the general attitude in New England. Unfortunately for the party’s establishment, local capital-c Conservatives were appalled by some of Ms Scozzafava’s opinions and started jumping ship for Doug Hoffman, running for the local Conservative Party. The race quickly became the talk of the blogosphere and Mr Hoffman picked up numerous endorsements (including from potential 2012 Presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty, and media personalities Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck). As he gained steam, Ms Scozzafava found her campaign being completely undermined by her own side, and by last weekend she had had enough, announcing that she was dropping out of the race. She then stunned party bigwigs by making a White House-facilitated endorsement of her Democratic challenger over Mr Hoffman. Mr Hoffman duly lost.

The race had shades of the moronic attempt by the Democratic “Netroots” to oust Joe Lieberman from his Connecticut senate seat in 2006: a very moderate party member castigated by the fringes for being too soft, leading to a perverse outcome in which a suitably hardline candidate is duly defeated, handing a very winnable seat over to opponents instead. The reason why Republicans should remain worried at the national level is that the party’s strategy for a 1994-esque congressional sweep in 2010 could very easily be the same strategy that led to defeat in New York. Certainly, the Democratic mess in Connecticut in 2006 occurred in the context of a broader Democratic victory, with Democrats successfully broadening their party’s base by running candidates who were pro-gun and anti-abortion (hence the strength of “Blue Dog” democrats in Congress today). The Republicans have indeed been trying to attract moderate candidates for the House and Senate to run in swing states. But some of them – like Florida Governor Charlie Crist, now running for the Senate – are facing hard line primary challenges. Too many Republicans are still stuck with the illusion that the return path to power lies in embracing supposedly neglected basic principles – i.e. becoming more hard line, not less. Candidates like Ms Scozzafava – the precise sort of moderate candidate that Republicans will need to run when they eventually begin winning seats in blue states again – are currently being hounded out of contention.

In line with this, this week’s victorious Republican gubernatorial candidates distanced themselves from big-C Conservative principles and won largely because of local issues, not national ones. In Virginia, state Democrats sabotaged themselves by nominating a little-known figure ahead of a party heavyweight, Clinton stalwart Terry McAuliffe, who had a significant edge in fundraising and campaigning panache but ran into trouble before the primaries. The candidate, R. Creigh Deeds, was lacklustre and underfunded and would have had difficulty winning in the best of times. Robert McDonnell, the Republican candidate, kept quiet about social issues and hammered Mr Deeds on the economy; the surge of voters who turned out for Barack Obama last year stayed at home, and Mr McDonnell romped to victory. In New Jersey, meanwhile, the incumbent governor Jon Corzine had a lacklustre term in office, failing to achieve very much and conspicuously not bringing to bear the skills he had allegedly picked up as a Wall Street bigwig. (Governor Corzine used to be a senior executive at Goldman Sachs.) With Wall Street bigwigs being fairly unpopular anyway right now, Corzine was also facing an uphill battle, and engaged in an unpleasantly negative race. His opponent, despite being light on policy details, had won respect as an effective federal prosecutor who had several big corruption cases under his belt. He also benefitted simply from not being Corzine.

Republicans should not count on these factors presenting themselves again in 2010 at the national level. (They have a much better chance at picking up State governorships, where local issues predominate and Democrats have more to defend.) Democrats will be led by President Obama, an altogether different figure from the ineffective candidates Democrats fielded this time. And by that point, the political landscape may have changed significantly. Republicans need to change with it if they want to get anywhere.

In any case, they will have to be lucky, as the ball is mostly in Obama’s court at present. Less than a year in to his presidency, it’s unsurprising that he hasn’t achieved a vast amount yet – but the size of his pile of work in progress issues is impressive, and at some point in the next few months he will start to deliver. The economy is already picking up: thanks to the timely and effective stimulus and bailout packages started by the Bush administration and seamlessly continued into the Obama administration, the threat of a catastrophic failure in the financial system has faded and the imbalances in the American economy are beginning to unwind. Many bailed out banks have already paid back the government (at a hefty rate of interest), and more are doing so all the time; the car industry has also passed its nadir, as evidenced by GM’s decision this week to reverse its panicky sale of its main European subsidiary. Unemployment is currently the biggest factor contributing to economic misery, but it is a lagging indicator that will probably reach its nadir within the next six months. The broader economy is already starting to grow again. After a difficult winter, the Obama administration will be able to announce a string of good pieces of economic news through the summer and into next autumn.

On other initiatives, too, the benefits lie somewhere just around the corner. The flagship post-stimulus effort has been on healthcare reform, which has now tortuously emerged from committees and is close to being put to the floor of the House and Senate. It needs to be passed in both places, reconciled between the two chambers, and then passed by both chambers again. This will take several more months. In the meantime, passions will run high. The eventual form that the reform will take is unclear, but it is likely to be unsatisfactory to just about everyone. (Conservatives will be dismayed by the growth of government and the failure to reform horrendous medical tort laws, liberals appalled by the apparent retreat from the promise to make sure that provision is universal.) Nevertheless, a final version will likely be passed at some point this winter. Once the battle is over, passions will cool, and even the limited reforms that are achieved will be hailed – quite rightly – as considerably better than nothing. Health care will not be a hot-button issue in the 2010 campaigns.

The other signature legislative initiative moving forward at the moment is climate change legislation. The US is under intense international pressure to have a plan of its own (after the disgraceful, deliberate non-activity of the Bush administration), and the sentiment is shared by a large and growing swathe of American society. Although Congress will probably not be able to pass anything before December’s global climate-change summit in Copenhagen, most likely some sort of bill will make it into law before next summer to establish a cap and trade scheme. Like healthcare – and similar to comparable international efforts on climate change, like the European Union’s cap and trade scheme – this bill will likely be flawed in several important ways. But when it passes, Democrats will have three major pieces of progress under their belts (the economy, healthcare, and climate change). Republicans can influence the narrative on how these achievements are perceived, but without any sort of constructive policies of their own they will struggle to rival a party in power which is actually getting things done.

The main risks faced by Democrats, then, relate to a failure to deliver rather than to a resurgent Republican party. If the economy takes a turn for the worse – or if there is some sort of general tax hike to address the budget deficit before a recovery is safely entrenched – then they will lose credibility on their economic management. If the health care or climate change bills fail to pass, the initiative will have been lost and grave doubts will surface over Democrats’ ability to pass important legislation.

Another risk comes from foreign affairs, which the Obama administration has placed on the backburner (and has not been especially adept at managing thus far). A crisis, handled badly, could hurt a lot. Afghanistan is the likeliest place to generate such a crisis. While it would be disingenuous to accuse the Obama administration of “dithering” over Afghan policy (as Dick Cheney has), at some point a new policy will need to be announced. There are no good options on the table. The present situation is untenable. An Afghan surge could fail, and there is little enthusiasm for it after the awful mess of Hamid Karzai’s rigged re-election. But a retreat to a more surgical attitude towards eliminating al-Qaeda operatives risks abandoning the rest of the country to the Taliban (making the task of fighting al-Qaeda considerably harder), and has the added risk of making Obama look soft on security. Any right-thinking person ought to grit their teeth at such awful oversimplification of complicated strategic choices, but the simple fact of the matter is that a drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan that is followed by a terrorist attack in the United States – even if the two are unrelated – will destroy Obama’s presidency in an instant. The Obama administration will need to be both wise and lucky to manage Afghanistan successfully.

But assuming that Afghanistan doesn’t blow up, that the economy is once more gathering steam by next summer, and both health care and climate change go through by the end of next Spring – all, on balance, more likely than not – Democrats will actually be in a pretty good place going into the 2010 midterm elections. It was memorably pointed out – I forget by whom, though it may have been Joe Klein – that when pundits talk about spending political capital, it’s opinion poll points that they’re talking about. As soon as rhetoric begins its journey into reality, it is inevitable that some starry-eyed supporters will find their hopes dashed. By taking on so many big issues all at once, Obama has been playing a dangerous game with his support base – meaning that the real story in American politics at the moment is that he is winning it. It is striking how well his polling numbers are holding up. The President is consistently given a majority approval rating, and although this has been eroding down into the low 50s, it is line with past successful presidents at equivalent stages in their presidencies. It will improve when results flow in. The Democrats have all of the policy-making initiative at present, and are making good use of it; it is up to them how well positioned they will be by next summer.

Republicans, meanwhile, are not full of ideas, and don’t really know what they stand for at present. Opposition to whatever legislation is on the table is all very well, but a party looking to retake control needs to have credible alternatives, which Republicans largely don’t. Their opposition will be meaningless when the eventual bills get passed. More importantly, the Republican party at the moment is ideologically exhausted and retreating to its fringes. Its most charismatic leaders seem to be people on the rabid fringe like Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal; loons like Michele Bachmann are getting their moment in the sun; responsible, competent administrators are either bending towards the loony end (Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney) or keeping their heads down and trying not to get too involved in the in-fighting (Charlie Crist, Arnold Schwarzenegger). Glenn Beck seems to be taking over from Rush Limbaugh as the most visible voice on the right.

Naturally, such figures on the far-right advocate a return to core principles. For ideologues on both ends of the spectrum, such a move is always the answer: it’s what Howard Dean and the Michael Moore wing of the Democratic party advocated so strongly in 2004 (hence the Lieberman fiasco), and in a comparative context (of 2-party systems) it can be seen as a fairly normal course of action for parties who have lost their way. In Britain, it was a major factor in making Labour unelectable in the 1980s (too far left) and in keeping the Conservatives unelectable after 1997 (too far right).

Such a strategy is an illusion. People haven’t gone off Republicans because they have been insufficiently anti-government, insufficiently anti-abortion or insufficiently anti-gay. It’s because Republican policies to fight the government have failed to shrink it but succeeded in hobbling its effectiveness; policies to restrict abortion have gotten nowhere; and policies to fight gay marriage have become tone-deaf in an era where a battle that is primarily symbolic has to compete for the attention of people who have bigger things to worry about and are increasingly tolerant of homosexuality anyway.

In short, Republican strategy is still stuck in Reagan-era mindsets and Bush-era tactics. But Reagan succeeded in a different time and place, and in any case had a mainstream charm and feel-good factor that no current Republican can even come close to replicating. And Bush’s political tactics succeeded so well in 2000, 2002 and 2004 because they stuck it to a divided, demoralised and chaotic Democratic party while maximising turnout by turbocharging the loony fringe.

Nowadays, the loony fringe has captured the party: the bedrock of moderate voters who reliably leaned Republican, especially outside of the South, has been substantially eroded. In large part this has happened because of the Republican agenda whilst in power; Republicans had eight years of President Bush in which to enact their agenda, and their failure to do so with successful results is what alienated so many moderates. The Republican agenda right now is substantially unchanged. It may continue to turbo-charge the loony fringe, but so long as Democrats manage to generate decent turnout of their own (a major issue for them in Virginia and New Jersey), that loony fringe will not be able to capture the country. (Even if it did, it would be turfed out before too long: voters outraged at Bush’s policies but jaded in a post-Obama funk would rediscover their passion fairly quickly if faced by a resurgent Republican party in its current state.)

One day – within the next decade – a moderate Republican party will begin to re-emerge. Its main emphasis will be competence and pragmatism, it will have softened its stance on homosexuality and (perhaps) the primary importance of religion in the public sphere, and it will be fielding candidates like Charlie Crist nationally and like Dede Scozzafava in blue parts of the country. That party will take back Congress and the Presidency. Its radical elements will be sidelined.

Today’s Republicans are not that party. Its victorious candidates this week were fighting against the grain of the party’s present direction; the candidates who best represented its current ethos were defeated. As we look beyond this week’s elections towards 2010 and 2012, the ball is mostly in the Democrats’ court. And Republicans won’t have a chance of sustainably returning to power until they raise their game a lot more than they have so far.

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