Obi-Wan and I finally had a chance to discuss Tuesday’s results . . .
Jim: We’ve had a day or two to digest the results. What do you think?
Obi-Wan: First, congrats to you, looks like a GOP gain of 65 to 67 seats. You were closer than almost anyone and nearly did the impossible feat of hitting it on the head. And gutsy because other handicappers were afraid of going to the high number.
This kind of GOP win has implications that reverberate and grow and can hardly be fully seen at the moment. (And the analysis will grow more favorable as times goes on.) But here are some quick, still bleary-eyed, two-mornings-after notes.
PSYCHOLOGICAL EDGE — Look at the Wednesday headlines: “Massive Swing” (Wall Street Journal), “Tide Turns Starkly” (New York Times), “Dramatic Political Reversal” (USA Today), and my favorite, from the Washington Post’s distraught Ruth Marcus, “Obama Thumped.”
This brings to mind something Brit Hume said the other day, that a gain of 50 or 55 seats might have been seen as an anticlimax but anything north of that is huge psychologically.
The impact here is not just on national politics and goes beyond giving Republicans a boost for 2012. At issue are the psyches of Democrats who want to run for office. They will be thinking they need to be like Joe Manchin and run against their own party’s liberalism or resign themselves to exile from majority power.
IS THE LIBERAL AGENDA DONE FOR GOOD? Beyond the psychological edge is the hard vote count. When Fox put up the map of congressional results Election Night, Charles Krauthaumer looked at that sea of red and noted politics was returning to the norm. He was making the point that the Republican loss of the House was due to events unlikely to repeat themselves, like the Iraq War and the financial meltdown.
So “the Obama agenda is dead,” Krauthammer said. But it goes beyond that. The people tried trusting Democratic claims that they would govern as moderates. That didn’t work out, and that trust won’t be back any time soon. Barring mass criminal GOP misbehavior, the House will stay in conservative hands for many years to come and that means any liberal legislation is a non-starter.
2012 AND THE SWING STATES: Okay, so look at the mixture of results in both state and federal contests and the case can be made that Florida and Ohio have now moved from swing states to red states. And based especially on those astounding state legislative results, you can make a start on claiming the same for Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and maybe even Illinois. So does this leave New York and California the only reliable big states for the Democrats? How would you like to be a Democratic presidential candidate contemplating this Electoral College math?
Jim: You mentioned California. Is that state gone for Republicans for the foreseeable future?
Obi-Wan Kenobi: Michael Medved said yesterday that Fiorina won the white vote by 9 percent, which is 61 percent of the total vote. But she did abysmally among Hispanics, getting only 28 percent. If she merely got to 40 percent, she wins.
Hispanic voters for a lot of reasons are nascent Republicans. But there are perception problems that need to be broken through. Those problems are not solved by doing what the consultants recommend — talking only about the economy while dancing around other issues. Our candidates need to be talking about ideas and discussing the difference between conservative and liberal philosophies. The question is one of educating voters about what those philosophies mean to them.
Yes, right, conservative candidates need to educate. Reagan was doing it all the time. People like Toomey and Rubio and Paul do it automatically. Lots of people who have normal lives and don’t focus on politics and campaigns aren’t really aware their own views are “conservative” and the Democrats are “liberal.” So, the GOP needs to be expository — it needs to turn philosophical. Never mind focusing on consultants’ tricks, just take full advantage of the “liberal vs. conservative” motif. Again, we need to make the point over the next two years that this is not about Obama but about the liberal elite that has run the Democratic party since 1972.
We were lucky this time because the Obama-Pelosi-Reid combination educated voters for us. So Scandinavian and other ethnic groups through the upper Midwest states I just mentioned remembered what they knew during the Reagan era, that Republicans are for frugal government — lower spending and taxing. They realized that when Democrats talk about fairness and the poor, this is just code for taking other people’s money and giving it to political friends and supporters in big unions or other special interests.
Which is what brings us back to California. When Hispanics — who are prodigiously hard workers and also agree with the GOP on the broad social issues — figure this out, they will also vote Republican. But somebody has to make the case.
Jim: You hit “the consultants” pretty regularly. Are they really the bad guys? Isn’t this partially the fault of candidates?
Obi-Wan Kenobi: The GOP lacks, as Patrick Caddell puts it, “a national narrative.” So, yes, much of the problem in so many races remains a plague of consultants who don’t believe in the battle of ideas and the superiority of the conservative brand name. The Bush campaigns could only barely beat Al Gore and John Kerry and left us the 2006 and 2008 disasters precisely because they religiously refused to use those brand names and thought clever maneuvers by political geniuses won elections.
Politics is about ideas. And advertising is about knowing that you are not ultimately going to con your audience. So our experts in political advertising have a problem. They don’t understand politics. And they don’t understand advertising.
Jim: I remain frustrated by the results in the Senate.
Obi-Wan Kenobi: That’s avarice talking now, not a rational reaction, since a pickup of six seats and possibly seven in a year when the Republicans had more than their share of incumbents to defend is impressive. Still, nothing is worse than having the impossible (picking up 10 Senate seats) within reach and falling short. Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer survived even with pathetic approval numbers and in Colorado and Washington (where Rossi still could win) the races were so close. Ouch. A greedy ouch, admittedly. But still an ouch.
Jim: So what did we not learn?
Obi-Wan Kenobi: I thought we were going to get an answer to the exciting question I raised with you on Election Day — can one house of Congress (the Democrats in the Senate) survive a Superwave, i.e., Gallup’s generic lead at an unprecedented 15 points and Rasmussen at 12. Alas, we will not. Both Gallup and Rasmussen were wrong. (And Gallup had never been wrong before.) The generic came in at 9, which was high, but not like those other two unprecedented numbers.
Still, a 9-point wave is very strong, and while the House caught it fully, the Senate candidates did not. Though disappointing for the moment, this is fascinating and much can be learned from it. We need to look at those Senate races.
Jim: What about the Tea Party?
Obi-Wan Kenobi: What about it? I’m laughing at Larry Sabato saying people are texting him that the Tea Partiers cost the GOP a 50-50 Senate. What an insiders’ “who are these newcomers?” reaction. Just as the Goldwater movement transformed the GOP from an Eastern and pretty liberal party into a conservative one and gave us Reagan, the Tea Party folk have brought great new energy as well as people to politics, including millions of Americans who were part of the old Perot coalition and now realize they are conservatives who should be identifying with Republicans. The consultants can’t stand these people cause they aren’t politically housebroken and as candidates even question their production costs and agency fees.
Jim: What are we overlooking?
Obi-Wan: Let’s go back to the real possibility that the era of liberal Democratic power in the Congress is over. The two most important names in this election weren’t in yesterday’s returns. The refusal of Byron Dorgan and Evan Bayh to run again for their Senate seats speaks to the end of a political model that has sustained liberalism for two generations — candidates who talk conservative at home but vote liberal in Washington.
The media always let them get away with this duplicity. And so did the national GOP. (In 1978 and 1980 groups like NCPAC exposed liberal senators in their home states and they lost. But that’s been it.) But now all those Blue Dogs have cable news and bloggers making them the subject of coverage and scrutiny. And, of course, there are the outside groups buying ads in their district. For years “Blue Dog” Jim Costa in Northern California liked to talk at home about what a conservative he was, but he stood with Pelosi on just about everything. A few weeks ago, he looked like he was cruising to reelection and then some conservative groups bought ads. Now it appears he’s lost.
Democrats seeking reelection are going to understand this, which is what I mean by additional analysis of this election only strengthening conservative leverage, especially in Congress. I think Caddell has a point when he says the Senate now is “functionally Republican.” So in the next Congress and lame-duck session, look for Democrats endorsing the Bush tax cuts and even a repeal of Obamacare and backing off on potentially suicidal national-security issues like repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or endorsing the new nuclear treaty.