What 2009 says about 2010

Published On:
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
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Off-year elections are usually discussed and analyzed far beyond their extrapolative usefulness. The unwashed, election-starved commentating masses — bereft since the inauguration — finally have something to talk about.

At the risk of inferring too much, here’s what this year’s elections in New Jersey and Virginia mean for Republicans and Democrats:

First, the Age of Obama is not necessarily a Democratic age.

Democrats had hoped President Barack Obama’s resounding win in 2008 was, in fact, a victory for the set of ideas he supported in the campaign.

They claimed a mandate on health care, especially, and more generally on issues of government size and scope.

If the president’s approval ratings and the widespread discontent with his handling of the economy and health care didn’t catch the attention of the White House, this month’s elections will.

Obama made three separate visits to New Jersey to campaign for Gov. Jon Corzine. Corzine — an incumbent, note well — hoped that Obama’s popularity in New Jersey would help carry the day. It didn’t.

In fact, Corzine managed to turn Obama’s 16-point victory in 2008 into a 5-point defeat to a nondescript Republican challenger in 2009.

Virginia’s gubernatorial results also seem to argue that Obama was a new thing in politics, and that his success in the last election augurs nothing. In a state Obama won handily in 2008, Republican Bob McDonnell ran away with a 17-point victory.

Second, conservatism isn’t dead.

McDonnell and New Jersey Gov.-elect Chris Christie’s victories give lie to the thesis, advanced by many in the political world, that conservatism’s great victories are behind it.

Clearly, conservatism still has some viability, if only as a counterweight to the Obama agenda. Much of the liberal rejoicing over the death of conservatism ignored the obvious fact that any political movement, no matter how devoid of ideas, can win if the party in power is disliked.

Finally, this year’s elections show there’s a clear choice for Republicans.

They can run the kind of scorched-earth campaigns where the most compelling rationale for their candidacy is that they aren’t socialists, or they can run the kind of positive, locally focused campaign that McDonnell ran in Virginia.

It seems increasingly obvious that today’s voters — at least in this election cycle — care much more that candidates are reasonable, accessible and new, than that they check every box on some hypothetical issue survey.

Issues will still matter, of course. As far as ideology matters, the political climate seems distrustful of Washington, skeptical of grand promises and major interventions, and inclined to “throw the bums out.”

Candidates who win will convince voters, like McDonnell did, that they are more prepared to address the dinner table issues — jobs, education, transparency of government — that animate voters in uncertain times.

If Republicans want to win in 2010, they should acquaint themselves with the minutiae of their districts and states.

Forget storming Washington with pitchforks and apocalyptic rhetoric.

Focus on jobs, education and translating principles into pragmatic policy.

There’s an opportunity here for Republicans, and Democrats can only watch and hope they choose the louder and angrier path that leads to ruin.

Reach Will at wmunsil@asu.edu.