Some Early Evening Thoughts on Election Day, 2009

Note - I finished this up around 8:30pm tonight but due to technical difficulties was not able to post until close to midnight.

I’m not sure there is an awful lot that can be read into the results tonight.  Does anyone really believe if Deeds and Corzine lose that it had something to do with Barack Obama and the Washington Democrats?  Both Corzine and Deeds are damaged or ineffective candidates, and Obama is still running 30 points ahead of the national and Congressional Republicans.  How could he have been a drag on candidates when his numbers are still so strong in each of these two states and nationally?

And yes the Republicans are divided, and we saw, incredibly, the RNC and RNCC-backed GOP nominee endorse the Democratic nominee in a historically Republican NY-23.  So some warning signs for the Rs in this one too, as a wild embrace of a nostalgic, reactionary conservatism seems to be the very opposite of what the GOP or the country needs right now.  

In my mind tonight’s elections tell us very little we didn't already know, and tell us even less about where we will be next year.  Last year the Democrats were given the chance by the American people to run the government, and the country is still willing to let them lead, though they are a little less enthusiastic than before.  The GOP is deeply unpopular, particularly the Congressional Republicans, and remains a weakened, ideologically spent party, a party so weakened and lost that it is allowing truly fringe characters like Palin, Beck and Limbaugh to play way too big a role in its affairs these days.

Do we really believe the future of the GOP lies in candidates who view Glenn Beck as their mentor (Hoffman), went to Bob Jones University (McDonnell) are still active members of an organization called the Sons of the Confederacy (Joe Wilson) which has fringe views on race, or a woman who can field dress a moose (you know)?

What I feel about tonight is that we are in an in-between moment, half way through November of 2008 and 2010.  We are in a very different place than we were from a year ago, and will be in a very different place a year from now.   The Republicans are going through some necessary and tough internal struggles, which may push them closer to or pull them further from the American people.  Certainly if they are to make gains next year they will have to start doing more than say they hate Obama, and show they have changed, that they can and are offering a constructive alternative to the early Obama era politics.  Unless Obama and the Democrats really screw up it is hard to imagine the country returning to the GOP unless they make it clear that they are different, have changed, are offering something new and better.  

As for the Democrats it feels like the country is still with them, and wishing them to do better.   People are toying with the GOP and independent candidates a bit but there has been no whole sale abandonment of the Democratic majority - yet.  As I have written again and again, the key to the American electorate now is convincing them that you have an economic plan to help get ahead and live better lives.  If the Democrats offer that next year, and from the State of the Union on make the entire year about the struggle of every day people, about selling their new economic strategy for America to the American people and keep the focus relentlessly on their modern plan to create broad based prosperity (and it is a good plan btw) they will do fine.  The Democrats are still in control of their own destiny, and can, with a new strategic direction, reassert their control over the agenda and a nation looking for a better economic future and a politics focused on them and their struggles.

At the risk of incurring the wrath of many of my progressive friends, I have come to believe that if the President does not end up signing the mother of all health care bills this year it is not the end of the world.   I’m not convinced Democrats have figured out how to marry the politics and policy of reform, and it would be better to admit that than pass a bad bill.  It would be a sign of incredible maturity for Democrats to say we tried hard and didn’t get there rather than continuing to show the lack of party coherence on the matter to the public each and every day, a process that has already gone on for much too long.   Some first steps can be taken this year – like eliminating pre-existing conditions – that will be felt by real people across the country next year, showing the public that change is actually possible, and creating the conditions for much more significant reform over the next few years.

It will also allow the party to focus relentlessly on developing a comprehensive economic strategy for the country, which is simply more important than reforming health care.  This new agenda could include the nurturing of 21st century skills and schools, modernizing and reforming our health care system to among other things get costs down and coverage up, adopting a long term strategy to move America to a low carbon footprint, passing the Doha trade round and reaffirming our commitment to economic liberalization, reforming the broken immigration system that is just putting to much pressure on workers at the bottom end of the economic ladder, accelerating innovation and entrepreneurship, and cleaning up our broken financial system among other things.  Health care reform can be folded into a much broader multi-year effort to modernize the American economy, buying our leaders a little more time to get it right, and to put as much emphasis on controlling costs and offering choice as expanding coverage (by the way controlling costs will actually help us expand coverage and perhaps needs to be seen as a first step to expanding coverage rather than the other way around).

Developing this new economic strategy is the highest domestic policy for the nation, and for both political parties.  There is a strong argument that what has given the GOP their little window of opportunity tonight was the national Democratic Party’s taking their eye off the economic ball these last few months.  The good news for the Democrats is that this is a fixable problem. The bad news for the Republicans is that this desire for this new economic strategy is the direct result of years of GOP mismanagement of our economic affairs, a reality still very fresh in the American people’s minds, and one that will become much more salient and even more fresh the more the Democrats focus on offering their own economic strategy in the months to come.

For me the most important political dramas in America today are not in tonight’s election results or today’s temporal squabbles, but in seeing whether over the next year the Democrats can make the struggle of every day people their central focus, and if the Republicans can become more than the Party of No.   How the two parties handle these internal challenges will be much more important to determining what might happen next fall than anything that happens in what is clearly an off year election of only marginal national significance.

And be sure to read Mike Hais’s and Morley Winograd’s excellent essay on the failure of Creigh Deeds and what it means for the Democrats in the days ahead.