My friend David Frum penned a scolding tutorial the other day in response to my optimistic post about how the liberal conventional wisdom is “incandescantly wrong.” I wrote, in part:
The story is not that the GOP is self-destructing, it is that the conventional wisdom is being shown to be ludicrous. For some time now Frank Rich, Sam Tanenhaus, and countless others (including David Frum) have been arguing that the GOP is a rump party and the only way for it to survive is for it to embrace me-too Republicanism of one flavor or another. The story of all three major races (Va., N.J., and NY-23) is that this conventional wisdom was incandescently wrong and ill-advised. Hoffman and McDonnell owe their success to the support of independents (the independents all of these people said wanted moderate, Democrat-lite policies) and to Republicans determined to stay true to conservative principles. Not only was the conventional wisdom wrong, the idea that there’s a “civil war” within the GOP revolving around this argument is nonsense. The GOP is an unapologetically conservative party, providing a choice not an echo, and — horror of horrors — it’s working.
Now, David basically — though not entirely — agrees with the liberal conventional wisdom. He wrote in response (emphasis mine):
This is a deeply unrealistic assessment. In two of the three most watched races in the country, the candidate of the president’s party is running neck and neck against his main challenger – in the midst of the worst recession since World War II.
This is what you call a conservative politics that is “working”? What would it look like if conservative politics were failing?
It’s instructive to compare the elections one year into the Obama administration with the elections of 1993, one year into the Clinton administration. In 1993, Republicans narrowly defeated an incumbent governor in New Jersey and an incumbent mayor in New York City. For good measure, Republicans also won the mayoralty of Los Angeles 54-46 and won the governorship of Virginia 58-41.
On Tuesday, by contrast, we will likely see squeakers in New Jersey and the special election in New York’s 23d congressional district.
Why so much more successful 16 years ago than today?
Two reasons: programs and candidates.
In 1993, the big problems of the voting cities and states – crime, disorder and excessive local taxation – could convincingly be laid at the doors of out-of-touch Democratic administrations. Republicans offered credible alternatives: welfare reform, broken windows policing, and reform of government spending.
Today’s big problem is the economy of course. Republicans and conservatives would like to blame the recession on the president. In time perhaps that accusation will gain greater credibility. For now, though, it’s still George Bush’s recession and we remain George Bush’s party.
The second difference between 1993 and 2009 are the candidates. Back then, Republicans nominated the pro-choice Christie Todd Whitman to run in New Jersey, the former Bobby Kennedy supporter Rudy Giuliani in New York, and the pro-public transit Richard Riordan in Los Angeles – at the same time as they backed George Allen in Virginia. That’s what national governing coalitions do.
But where are the Richard Riordans of today? John Cornyn is working hard to recruit them for next year’s Senate races. But if the message of 2009 is that the Carly Fiorinas and the Charlie Crists are unwelcome in the GOP – his job is about to get a lot harder. And David Axelrod’s is about to get a lot easier.
The NY-23 race does look like a surprising squeaker and the final results are not yet in. But I think everyone can agree that the circumstances of that race are fairly unique.
Meanwhile, Christie appears to be about 5 points ahead of Corzine, even with Daggett in the race. That compares with Christie Todd Whitman’s very narrow 1 point margin of victory in 1993. New Jersey is considerably more Democratic today than it was then. Clinton won it by less than 3 points. Obama won it by 15. But the Republican tonight did better than the liberal Republican did then.
As for Virginia, Bob McDonnell has not only beaten George Allen’s amazing 17 point margin of victory, he has carried the down ticket candidates as well. Virginia, too, has become far more Democratic since 1993.
I’ll have more thoughts tomorrow on why I think David’s analysis is off. But for now I’ll stick to the facts and leave it to others to decide who has the “deeply unrealistic assessment” and to deduce what “working” means.