Political columnists and pundits tend to overreact to electoral developments and their significance in relation to future contests. I cannot say I am free from such journalistic sin. Yet, in the wake of Tuesday’s off-year elections, I am here to sound a warning before every network and print news outlet engages in the perennial debate over who is up and who is down in the political sphere. I am only afraid I speak too late.
It was only one year ago that a young senator from Illinois took a nation by storm in his route on Election Day. A progressive, black Democrat had won the White House with a resounding 53 percent of the popular vote. Judging by some of the reaction in the days that followed, Obama was destined to ease the economic downturn, withdrawal all troops from Iraq and achieve universal health care before his first 100 days had passed. The reality, of course, is much different. I am not sure that the most neutral observer could tell the difference between today and any random day in the twilight years of the Bush presidency.
This is not to say that President Obama has neglected to undertake distinct policy initiatives. Rather, it is testament to the fact that America’s two major parties remain huddled on the edge of the center. That “center,” supposedly damaged by tea party activism and liberal discontentment, survives because our nation’s political system is built to side step the most vexing issues in hopes of compromising on broad and agreeable terms. Change comes through a frustratingly slow process of attrition — there’s some give and take, and maybe, just maybe, we will see incremental progress. Everything our Founding Fathers held dear, including a guard against passing, sectional or passionate interests, seems so wise at this moment.
With the news that Republicans Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie won gubernatorial seats in Virginia and New Jersey, respectively, the GOP secured the rebound it desperately needed. No one can deny that these triumphs, occurring in states that went for Obama last year, are signs of life for the slumping Republican Party. What last night did not represent, however, was a clear rebuke of the Obama administration or the direction of the country. The Republicans will not simply ride the good news to success in next year’s midterm elections. This is not 1993 with a prelude to 1994. Every year is unique, full of distinct political actors and shifting loyalties.
For Republicans to succeed, they must continue, as they did in Virginia and New Jersey, to attract Independent voters. This entails fielding the right candidate and trumpeting a tailored message. McDonnell, for example, ran as unconventional Republican focusing on job creation, school quality and transportation. Conversely, Democrats would be foolish to believe that they can count on Obama’s coalition to win off-year and midterm elections — it’s like trying to grasp running water in your hand. The perfect combination of youth, blacks, Latinos and educated whites will not carry the party without sustained enthusiasm.
The party system did not take a measurable hit in either of the past two elections. Sure, electoral turnover is high in this time of social unrest. Yet both parties will live to fight another day. What we can take from last night is this: the electorate showed, once again, that all politics is local. Moreover, there is more fluidity than most believed. That fluidity holds the center together; it is compromised of that 15 to 20 percent of individuals that managed to vote for Obama and McDonnell or Obama and Christie. We owe a lot to those voters.