The Republicans won the midterm elections last week. In an unhappy accident of timing, however, the elections won’t be held for another year. Despite the GOP’s premature victory laps and the press’s predictable reaction, the outcome had almost nothing to do with next November’s contests for the House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, and statewide offices in 36 states.
From just two tea leaves, Virginia and New Jersey, conservative columnists who should know better brewed instant fantasies worthy of the teabaggers. Charles Krauthammer pompously proclaimed a defeat for "Obamaism," dooming the President’s once and future victories. Obama’s 2008 election, he wrote, was a "historical anomaly ... one shot, one time" and -- in case you still didn’t get the point -- "never to be repeated." Never?
Never mind that in Virginia the Republican challenger never once challenged Obama. In Jersey, incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine was a casualty not of the President who stumped for him as he closed a yawning gap in the polls, but of the Bush economy, which left a yawning gap in state revenues and precluded deeper cuts in property taxes. Corzine’s Republican rival Chris Christie featured Obama on his website -- not to scorn him, but to embrace his message of change. Nine successive times in Virginia and six successive times in New Jersey, the party that won the White House has lost the governorships there the following year.
Krauthammer’s misreading of the 2009 results may have been purple and Apocalyptic, but it was echoed, in somewhat muted terms, across the right-leaning landscape. It was as if the Right had found its promised land in Old Dominion and the Turnpike State. Former White House Speechwriter Michael Gerson wrote that the Republican victors faced down opponents who practiced the politics of "viciousness." (He should know; he worked for Bush.) "All politics is national," he went on, citing the slumping economy caused, of course, not by Bush’s near-depression but by Obama’s deficit spending.
If next year is a referendum on Obama -- and it will be --voters will care far more about jobs and economic growth than about the size of the deficit. Just think of Ronald Reagan, who ran record deficits even as he railed against them for eight years. Americans will feel the economic turnaround in their own lives certainly by the next presidential election, and hopefully by next November. This is what matters. Above all, this will determine whether Obama’s presidency represents a passing moment or a new political era.
But it’s not the only factor. What counts, too, is the character of both parties. Republicans have to show that they have something more to offer than a relentless, angry yearning for Obama’s failure. And the Democrats have to prove that they’re the party of "yes" -- not just in rhetoric, but in governing.
For the GOP, the lesson is fundamental -- the party must reach beyond its unstable base. That argument came from GOP consultant Alex Castellanos, and though I’m reluctant to tarnish his bona fides by praising him, he’s right that this year’s Republican gubernatorial candidates succeeded by remembering that their principles "were good for more than saying no." Not only did they adjure attacks on Obama; each portrayed himself as an affirmative leader with "an optimistic, populist vision of economic success."
This is both diagnosis and recommendation for Republicans. But there’s reason to believe they will have the hardest of times following the advice. Only one day after incantations of teabaggery led Republicans to a stunning defeat in upstate New York’s 23rd Congressional District, a number of GOP leaders appeared at an anti-health reform rally on Capitol Hill. They looked out and saw the sign saying, "Stop Obamunism" and the banner comparing the health bill to the death camp at Dachau, complete with pictures of Holocaust victims. Another placard trafficked in overt anti-Semitism: "Obama takes his orders from the Rothchilds." The spelling was wrong, but the obscenity was unambiguous. Yet not one Congressional Republican rebuked it.
This kind of politics is more repellent than appealing in a country where 56 percent of voters classify themselves as moderate or liberal -- and most of the 40 percent who are conservatives aren’t extremists.
But Republicans are hostages of the hardcore. When a clearly discomforted Eric Cantor, the House minority whip, was interviewed by Bloomberg’s Al Hunt, he said he didn’t "condone" comparisons with Hitler or "images that frankly are not, I think, very helpful." You think? Cantor’s remonstrance was neutered to avoid rankling a GOP base that has rolled out an ideological guillotine. Unbelievably, even Utah Sen. Robert Bennett faces the threat of a primary challenge on the grounds that he’s insufficiently conservative.
Democrats can’t rely on Republican self-destruction or a return to prosperity to pull them through. And just days after this odd-year election, they dramatically demonstrated that they understand that. Instead of making health care reform "more difficult," as Krauthammer predicted, Election Day 2009 flowed seamlessly into passage of reform by the House -- with just one vote from the party of "no." Now it’s up to the Senate.
For Democrats, there are other dangers ahead, especially Afghanistan -- an issue where the President’s fiercest critics are also those most fiercely urging him to escalate. But I’m betting that a year from now -- and certainly in 2012 -- no one will remember last week’s false prophesy of Democratic doom. Those who propounded it will likely move on to explaining how the economic recovery has nothing to do with Obama or his party because it would have happened anyway. Americans won’t pay much attention to that.
If Obama and the Democrats keep succeeding, they will in the end realign American politics. Then, the GOP will have to redefine itself. You can’t permanently rationalize your way forward any more than you can win a midterm election one year in advance.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why all drugs should be legal. (Yes, even heroin.)
- Here's the schedule very successful people follow every day
- How to trim $500 from your monthly spending
- Comic-Con 2014: Everything we learned about Avengers 2, Batman v. Superman, and more
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- The big, gaping hole in the liberal policy arsenal
- 7 ideas from ancient thinkers that will improve your modern life
- Are there too many good shows on television?
- The forgotten victims of the war in Ukraine
- Why you should really take a nap this afternoon, according to science
Subscribe to the Week