Who will Party with Whom in 2010?

As America enters a new era driven by the civic political orientation of the Millennial Generation and minorities, each party must decide the type of ideological and demographic coalition that will give it the best shot at future success.  This week's elections provided some clear clues to both Democrats and Republicans on which strategic direction to take.  Whether either party's national leadership has the political perspicacity to follow that path to success in the 2010 off-year elections and beyond, however,  is far less clear.

The special election in upstate New York's 23rd Congressional District seemed to shine the brightest light on where the American electorate is headed.  The state's local Republican Party leadership, mindful of Barack Obama's 52% majority in this once heavily Republican district, nominated a moderate, (some would later say liberal) candidate, Dede Scozzafava. Her political profile was similar to two of the most successful Republicans in New York history, Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Senator Jacob Javits, both of whom served in America's last civic era more than a half century ago.  But the GOP base outside of  New York's "North Country"  had long since moved past these faded images from the 1960s and was more interested in supporting a candidate whose conservative fiscal policies matched his attitudes on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion.

Taking advantage of the presence of a separate ballot line, national Republicans led by Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh, rallied behind the candidacy of Conservative Party candidate, Doug Hoffman, whose ideas fit their conception of the ideology that would unite and excite the GOP base.  But even in a Congressional district that hadn't elected a Democrat to Congress since the formation of the Republican Party that approach failed to generate a victory for Hoffman, who got only 46% of the vote.   Even after dropping out and endorsing the Democrat, Scozzafava got 5% of the vote from some very loyal Republicans, giving Owens a 3% margin of victory, very similar to Obama's margin in the district in 2008.  While it would be wrong to extrapolate these results from such a unique district  to the American electorate as a whole, the outcome does suggest that a strident and consistently conservative ideological approach will not be the way for Republicans to regain majority status anytime soon.

At the same time that they were losing in New York, Republicans were successful in both the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections.  By running positive campaigns focused on job creation and lower taxes, while downplaying social issues, both Robert McDonnell in Virginia and Chris Christie in New Jersey, were able to stop a recent streak of Democratic victories in those states.  All of this, as one of the smartest political journalists in DC, Ron Brownstein has pointed out, is reminiscent of the appeal and turmoil that Ross Perot's 1992 candidacy for President brought to American politics.

There is indeed much that is similar in the current Republican mantra against Democratic spending and Perot's message. Perot's appeal was based on his own "odd man out" persona and a megalomaniacal focus on the nation's budget deficit.  But Republicans tend to forget that Perot supporters were relentlessly secular. They rejected both the social agenda of the Republican Party and the big government tendencies of the Democrats. This makes any attempt by the GOP to follow the approach they used in upstate New York of melding government restrictions on social behavior and small government economic conservatism both ideologically inconsistent and politically difficult.

Others have suggested that the correct path to Republican recovery lies in marrying libertarian notions of limited government with that philosophy's social liberalism. Certainly the close votes on gay marriage in Maine and Washington, not to mention the vote to legalize marijuana by the citizens of Breckenridge, Colorado, suggests there is at least as much political potential in advocating tolerance on social issues as there is in hewing to conservative doctrine.

Writing in this month's edition of Fast Company, Silicon Valley's ideological bible, Carlos Watson, a high tech and media entrepreneur, argued the next election would provide the moment to build a lasting coalition of fiscal conservatives and social liberals.  While this week's special elections didn't offer the voter's such a choice, the candidacies for the California Republican gubernatorial nomination of both Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay and Steve Poizner, another former Silicon Valley entrepreneur who made his fortune monetizing GPS technology, may well provide a testing ground for this theory next year.

However, history and current polling data does not suggest this approach is likely to be any more successful for the Republican party than doubling down on conservatism was in New York's 23rd Congressional District.  The most recent WSJ/NBC poll by Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff suggested that the American public favors a quite different approach.   A large majority (63%) of the electorate said the government had either "done the right amount of intervention [in the economy] or needed to do more." Even 42% of non-aligned or loosely aligned voters in the middle of the electorate agreed with this statement. In other words, while Republicans stick to Reagan era ideas on the size and scope of government, the electorate is actually more interested in voting for candidates who will support a larger role for  government in restoring  the health of the U.S. economy.

Democrats, instead of running away from President Obama, should follow his lead in offering even more positive ways that government can protect middle class Americans from the worst excesses of the free market.  That may be the opposite of Libertarianism, but it's just what the public wants.

Despite yesterday's results,  conservatives seem intent on launching an intense civil war for the hearts and minds of the Republican Party in a series of high profile primaries next year. Undeterred by the results from New York's 23rd Congressional district, or for that matter the election to Congress of California's Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi in a district that  only recently become blue, the GOP seems only too willing  to form the type of circular firing squads that used to characterize the Democrats when Ronald Reagan dominated U.S. politics  two decades ago. Republican  leaders should instead follow the more likely road to victory demonstrated by  the pragmatic and practical politics of Virginia's Bob McDonnell.  Only that type of candidacy, grounded in the new realities of the electorate, can provide a real opportunity for that party's recovery from its current, historically low levels of support among American voters.

The public's new found willingness to use government as an economic force is the direct result of both the arrival of the Millennial Generation and the increased representation of minorities in the American electorate. Together these forces are demographically destined to become a larger and larger part of the population, providing Democrats a wind at their backs for decades-- if they will only listen to the voters and read the lessons of this week's special elections correctly.