Monday, November 2, 2009

Be Careful What You Wish For

The off-year elections tomorrow have sailed beyond mildly interesting into the the land of quantum politics where the rules of conventional-wisdom tea-leaf (and tea-bagger) reading don’t apply and where every little move of the polls becomes a statement of national import for the mid-term elections next year and somehow a reflection on the presidency of Barack Obama. Is the fall TV season really that bad that people have to find something else to entertain them?

The weirdest case is the Congressional race in upstate New York’s 23rd district where what should have been a footnote has become a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party both in New York and across the country. You probably already know all the details about who’s running — Bill Owens is trying to become the first Democrat to win the seat since before the Civil War and Doug Hoffman is the Conservative Party candidate who doesn’t even live in the district and doesn’t really know squat about what’s going on in Watertown. Dede Scozzafava was the GOP candidate, chosen by the local Republicans to win the safe seat until Mr. Hoffman started attracting the far right noisemakers in the GOP. It became a pissing contest between the likes of Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Sarah Palin, Fred Thompson, and a whole host of other ideologues (people who had one thing in common; they were all losers) who were dragging the party to the right and accusing Ms. Scozzafava of being the most liberal of the three candidates on the ballot.

Ms. Scozzafava suspended her campaign on Saturday and endorsed the Democrat. The right-wing blogosphere went nuts — not really a news flash there — and now the polls indicate — for what it’s worth — that Mr. Hoffman has the lead in the race. Meanwhile, the pundits are all trying desperately to glean what a Hoffman win will mean for the future of the GOP and take on some collateral damage in the bargain; Frank Rich came in for some nasty snipes from the right because of his “hissy fit” over the election and his prediction of doom for a party that is intent on turning even further to the right. (You can pretty much tell that you’re getting into silliness when pundits start picking on each other.) Meanwhile, Ross Douthat tries to be the sage in the room when he looks at the larger picture of what third-party candidates can bring to a race and how they add “substance.” If by “substance” he means they provide a thorn in the side to the other parties, then he’s probably right… until they damage the chances of the candidate he’s pulling for. Then it becomes a “stunt.” (I wonder if he thought Ross Perot brought substance to the 1992 presidential election.)

The NY 23rd is overshadowing a bunch of other off-year elections, including the governor’s race in New Jersey where the polls are close for the race between incumbent Jon Corzine (D) and Chris Christie (R) and the governor’s race in Virginia where it looks like Bob McDonnell (R) will beat Creigh Deeds (D). The interesting thing is that in the Virginia race, Mr. McDonnell, a product of the Pat Robertson alternate universe, is campaigning as a moderate and has not attracted the passion of the far-right. But there are also several other elections that could be of interest beyond the bells and whistles in New York, including the mayoral race in New York City and the fate of gay rights in Washington state, Maine, and Kalamazoo, Michigan.

And overshadowing all of these elections is, of course, Barack Obama. The president has had a hand in all three of the elections getting the headlines: he’s been campaigning for Gov. Corzine in New Jersey, his political advisers have distanced themselves from the faltering Mr. Deeds in Virginia, and of course there wouldn’t have to be a special election in New York if the president hadn’t appointed Rep. John McHugh (R) to be his Secretary of the Army in the first place. So whatever happens tomorrow, the results will be the most important election ever for the president; if Doug Hoffman wins, the legacy of Barack Obama’s presidency will be consigned to the ash-heap of history. Or something.

The safest prediction is that after all of Wolf Blitzer’s breathless coverage tomorrow night (and the special music written just for the occasion), the results will be microanalyzed to the point of disorienting obsessiveness and whoever wins will have their day in the glare; Mr. Owens or Mr. Hoffman will then become the most junior member of the United States House of Representatives and promptly vanish like a puff of smoke. A month from now neither of them will be able to get a pundit to pay attention to them unless they streak the House floor, and all of the considered opinions and tweets will be forgotten.

Well, since everybody else is going to do the pundit bit, I’ll give it a shot. If Mr. Hoffman wins, the onus will then be on the Republicans to prove that what they did to both him and Ms. Scozzafava is not an outlier. One election — local or national — doesn’t make a movement. If the far right and the tea-baggers want to really prove that they have taken over the GOP, they’re going to have to do what they did in NY 23 again and again in districts that are far more diverse and larger, and they’re going to have to appeal to more than just cranky white guys who think Sarah Palin is hot and Glenn Beck is the reincarnation of Thomas Jefferson. But as a lot of people have learned, politics is a lot like show business: the hardest thing to do isn’t getting to Broadway; it’s getting back there again and again, and most important, be better than you were the first time. (Just ask Neil Simon.) The toughest thing for the insurgent right may be for them to win NY 23rd so they can therefore prove that they’re more than just the outsiders clamoring at the gates. Once they get in, they’re going to actually have to do something more than just win an election. That’s not a lesson entirely lost on President Obama, either.