Few know and love the political horserace like Jay Cost. We talked with him before Election Day, and we’re back with him now. Cost, a staff writer for The Weekly Standard, talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about yesterday’s results.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What surprised you most about Tuesday night?
JAY COST: I was most surprised by Colorado, Illinois, and Nevada, where the polls turned out to be wrong. I was expecting to be surprised somewhere — paradox alert! — but I figured we’d be surprised in a way that favored the Republicans. But Bennet in Colorado, Quinn in Illinois, and Reid in Nevada all outperformed their polls.
LOPEZ: Are there big lessons learned here for Democrats?
COST: The liberals have had a two-year run at the government, and what was the result? The Pacific Coast is blue. New England is blue. Just about everything else is red. The political appeal of liberalism is geographically limited.
This is something that past liberals understood. Take Franklin Roosevelt. He built a broad liberal coalition that included not just the cities, but southern liberals, such as Claude Pepper, and old-time Bryan liberals from the mountain West, such as Burton Wheeler. Today, the South and the West want nothing to do with liberalism.
The Democrats have to figure out what to do about this — how do they translate their principles into policies that can appeal to a diverse cross-section of the country? But frankly, I don’t think they want to do this. Clinton’s strategy of triangulation worked politically, but it ultimately resulted in Ralph Nader playing spoiler. And liberals seem much happier to think that John Kerry lost because he was “swift-boated” rather than because he was a weak candidate. Similarly, today I think they are willing to think of their largest rebuke in 64 years as merely a function of the economic downturn.
LOPEZ: What are the big lessons for Republicans?
COST: Republicans have a version of the same problem. Last night, the GOP lost three Senate seats because of weak candidates. That’s just terrible. My basic feeling is that economic conservatism can be sold to the country without being watered down. It has happened many times before in the last 100 years. But you need candidates who can articulate the conservative case in a broad way, not a narrow way.
Conservatives are right to be worried about “establishment” Republicans (although the word “establishment” is not very descriptive). But they should also worry about anti-establishment candidates who are not going to get to half-plus-one. And actually, for conservatives really to get stuff done, they need more than half-plus-one. Would Ronald Reagan have gotten his tax cut through in 1981 if he had won by two points and had lost 20 states? I doubt it.
LOPEZ: Is there a moment in political history that 2010 resembles?
COST: I’d say 1938. FDR had overreached with the court-packing plan. He had lost control of his political coalition — and his sole legislative achievement in the 1937–38 Congress was the Fair Labor Standards Act, which had to be filled up with carve-outs and special goodies for his clients (just like health care!). The economy went into recession, and the GOP — left for dead in 1932 — comes storming back.
LOPEZ: Why is it that Reid was able to pull this off?
COST: Sharron Angle. That’s the reason. The GOP picked up a House seat in Nevada 3. It won the gubernatorial race. And Harry Reid and Barack Obama were unpopular with voters yesterday. They voted for Reid anyway because they disliked Sharron Angle more.
LOPEZ: Carly Fiorina was a bit of a surprise, wasn’t she? How she ran, I mean, and how close she came.
COST: Yeah. I’m sad over the Pacific Coast and New England. I had really hoped for more. Again, I’m not saying that the GOP needs to return to the Landon-Dewey-Eisenhower-Nixon wing, where it’s an echo not a choice, but they need to find a way to articulate their beliefs in a way that can win California in a year like 2010.
LOPEZ: Who was the most impressive candidate?
COST: I’d say Tom Corbett. Pennsylvania is a Democratic state at its core, and that was evident in how close the Senate race was. But Corbett won it going away, which means a lot of people who voted for Sestak also voted for Corbett. I think there is a lesson there for Republicans.
LOPEZ: As you watch the Democrats in the coming months, what will you be looking for?
COST: Whether they “get it.” Do they appreciate how the middle of the country is deeply suspicious of their policy approach? Or are they still interested in governing for the Left Coast and New England?
LOPEZ: What was your favorite campaign moment?
COST: When Frank Caprio said Obama could “shove it.”
LOPEZ: What do you wish had happened differently during the campaign?
COST: Better candidates in Colorado, Delaware, and Nevada. Believe you me, that could hurt us in the long run. Suppose the GOP defeats Obama in 2012 and picks up ten Senate seats (which, if you look at the map, is doable). H.R. 1 in 2012 is, of course, “Repeal and Replace Obamacare.” But the GOP only has 57 senators. What happens? Good chance the Democrats filibuster it, and all those liberals who preened about how anti-democratic the filibuster is will go silent.
LOPEZ: Is Obama a diminished president today?
COST: I’m not sure. Most of the president’s power comes from his ability to persuade. He has very little formal authority over domestic policy changes. He gets his way because people support him, which enables him to exert pressure on the Congress, which is really the center of domestic policy life.
Right now, he does not have that connection with the American people. He cannot go to Congress and say, “The people are behind me.” They are not behind him. However, he is still the president of the United States. If he works his angles carefully, he could rebuild that connection. That is exactly what Bill Clinton did in 1996. He was on the ropes for all of the previous year, but when it came time to fight over Medicare and the budget, Clinton outfoxed the GOP and managed to rebuild that connection.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.