By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services
In the history of modern politics, we’ve never seen a worse case of media overkill.
On Tuesday evening, Nov. 3, there they were: the entire panoply of political pundits, huddled with breathless anchors, providing the same wall-to-wall coverage you expect every four years for a presidential election. On the first anniversary of his winning the presidency, they struggled to offer in-depth analysis of what they all referred to as “the national referendum on President Obama.”
Except it wasn’t. Not even close. Three elections on the Eastern Seaboard — two of which were mostly about local issues — didn’t add up to a national plebiscite on Obama.
Granted, it wasn’t all good news for Democrats. Losing the governor’s race in Virginia and New Jersey was a mini-political setback for Obama, who campaigned for both Creigh Deeds and Jon Corzine. But their defeat was neither unexpected nor unusual. Indeed, just the opposite. The only two states to vote for governor in the first year of a presidency, both New Jersey and Virginia have a long history of voting against the party in power in the White House. In 2001, just seven weeks after 9/11, both states elected a Democratic governor. Yet nobody called it a repudiation of George W. Bush.
Voters in both states seem to agree. According to CBS exit polls, 55 percent of voters in Virginia and 60 percent of voters in New Jersey said Obama had no impact on their vote. The rest were split down the middle: with roughly half saying they were trying to send Obama a positive message, the other half, a negative one.
If there’s any worry for Obama, it’s the fact that a plurality of voters in both states identified the economy as a primary concern. That’s not news. Americans are genuinely worried about the economy. But it underscores the biggest political and policy challenge facing the president.
If there’s any message for Democrats in what happened Tuesday, it’s that they’d better start using the power they have and produce results. No wonder so many voters stayed home. Last year, they entrusted Democrats with the power to bring about major change. And what have they delivered? Nothing! Instead, on health care, they’ve spent 10 months arguing among themselves and begging for Republican votes. On Tuesday, voters warned Democrats: you’d better start using the power we gave you, or we’re going to take it back in 2010.
Any troubling signs for Democrats and Obama, however, are far outweighed by the mess Republicans created for themselves on Nov. 4 in New York’s 23rd congressional district. Right-wingers turned what should have been a routine and winning special election into a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party — which those with any soul lost.
The trouble started when party extremists outside the district, led by Chief Tea Bagger Dick Armey, refused to accept the Republican candidate, Dede Scozzafava, who’d represented the area in the state assembly for 11 years with strong bipartisan support. She’s too moderate, they said. Instead, Armey, Sarah Palin and Fox News rallied behind Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman — in effect, forcing Scozzafava out of the race. At which point, Scozzafava got her revenge by endorsing the Democratic candidate, Bill Owens. And Owens won, giving Pelosi and Obama one more solid Democratic vote for health care reform.
But Armey and Palin didn’t care whether Hoffman won or not. They still claimed victory (by losing?) and they sent Republicans a clear message: that conservatives were on the warpath, moderates were an endangered species, and cannibalism was the rule of the day. They announced plans to take down any moderates running in Republican primary elections next year, including Charlie Crist of Florida, Bob Bennett of Utah, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Olympia Snowe of Maine. Get this: Even if it means losing the general election to a Democrat!
For Democrats, nothing could be sweeter than this civil war among Republicans. But for Republicans, nothing could be more dangerous. Dick Armey and Sarah Palin are not out to save the Republican Party. They’re out to make it the Tea Bag Party, and they got off to a good start in New York’s 23rd.
Unfortunately for them, most Americans don’t share their extreme, Fox News, brand of politics. Proof? Doug Hoffman ran as a conservative, and lost. Chris Christie and Rob McDonnell ran as moderates, and won.
© 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.