Tri States Public Radio Staff
Wed November 25, 2009
Bill Knight - November 26
Macomb, IL – Weeks after the November 3 off-year elections, a memory of a rural Illinois grade school principal's comment about "averages" comes to mind: "If you were camping and you had one foot in the ice chest and the other in the campfire," he said, "I guess on average you'd be comfortable."
The perils of extremism are one of several lessons from the vote - the most obvious being that no party or candidate should take for granted their core constituencies, whether young or minority voters, or independent and moderate voters. Little is permanent in U.S. politics.
Even a dunderhead could see that; but not some political big shots.
Republicans suffered big losses in 2006 and 2008, but GOP candidate Chris Christie successfully ran to be New Jersey's new governor and Republican Bob McDonnell did the same in Virginia. (True, Democrat Bill Owens scored an upset in New York's 23rd Congressional District - held by Republicans since the Civil War - but reasonable people could agree his victory owed something to Republican infighting there.)
Democrats should assume nothing; Republicans shouldn't either.
Impartial observations: The campaigns were mostly proactive and positive, with few attacks on the still-popular President Obama. Also, McDonnell tempered his usual rhetoric and moved to the center, and Christie mostly let New Jersey's Blue voters realize that incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine was a former chairman of one of the biggest Wall Street gangs: Goldman Sachs.
Also, the issues were mostly local (and even foreign wars and American jobs - or the lack of them - are local problems at their hearts). Winners were for the most part practical folks less steeped in ideology than committed to finding solutions. People voted for promise or performance, not politics.
Lastly, looking at the feet on the street, Obama Nation stayed home from the polls - and the campaigns beforehand. Low turnouts from African-American and young voters hurt Democrats, and shifting preferences from moderates and independents helped Republicans.
Less neutral thoughts: After conservative Democrats diluted the economic stimulus and cut help to the unemployed, and after continuing to fight health-care reform's popular public option and financing through a tax on the wealthiest, Dem candidates needed to run forceful campaigns. The ones in Virginia and New Jersey were lousy. U.S. voters understandably wonder whether Democrats will ever get their act together and ACT, or will be content with the bi-partisan coziness with Big Business.
An author pal, Paul Loeb, who wrote "The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear," says Democrats should look in the mirror for targets of criticism.
"You have to give people something to fight for, and if our candidates are this unpopular, we'd better get better ones," he says. "Obama and the House and Senate leadership must tell [conservative Democrat] Blue Dogs and Senators like [Montana's Max] Baucus: The more they block progress on popular key initiatives, the more swing Democrats, including many of the most conservative, will pay the electoral consequences."
The White House could've done better, too. Obama could've been more forceful in dealing with the turncoat Dems who aren't supporting popular reforms; he could've been clearer about the mess that was left for him to clean up; he could've been more populist in appointments he ended up giving to Wall Street insiders Timothy Geithner (Secretary of the Treasury) and Larry Summers (National Economic Council director); and he could've been more involved in the movement-building-style campaigning that his 2008 Presidential campaign showed.
"The 2010 congressional races are looking a lot better for conservatives - notice I didn't say Republicans," conservative columnist Cal Thomas recently wrote in USA Today. "If they don't deliver or are seen as wanting power for the sake of power, politicians will be tossed out of office."
However, many in the GOP continue to be dogmatic extremists who celebrated driving moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava out of the 23rd District race and moderate Republican Sen. Arlen Specter into the Democratic fold.
After all, as White house senior adviser David Axelrod commented, "If there is a big backlash against Democrats, why did we just [win a seat] in a district that hasn't elected a Democrat in 150 years?"
Maybe voters couldn't stomach Bill Owens' opponent.
And any political party counting on their opponents to routinely field fools will lose like illiterates at Spelling Bees.