Thursday, May 20, 2010

The week's election results and their impact... not exactly bupkis, not exactly not

So now it’s the aftermath. What to make of Tuesday’s election/primary results? Answer, as suggested here just before the vote-counting started: not much.

There were a lot of primaries held Tuesday in Arkansas, Kentucky, Oregon, and Pennsylvania; there was also a special election in the 12th district of Pennsylvania to replace the late John Murtha. Not much attention outside the immediate area is generated by most of these elections. Ultimately, the contests of most general interest were the Republican senatorial primary in Kentucky, the Democratic senatorial primaries in Arkansas and Pennsylvania, and the special election in the Pennsylvania 12th.

In Kentucky, tea-partier Rand Paul won convincingly, largely by out-loonying Mitch McConnell’s protégé, Trey Grayson. As I mentioned last time, however, even Paul scores a lot lower on the crazyometer than incumbent Jim Bunning, so I don’t see a lot of movement there. The point is that mainstream, sane, Republicans don’t really exist any more. Oh, there are a handful out there, but, speaking as someone who voted for more R’s than D’s up until about 2002 (nothing like the Texas Republican Party to make one start voting Democratic), I honestly can’t think of a single Republican anywhere whom I’d be more likely to support than oppose.

It was Mitch McConnell, after all, who opposed raising oil company liability cap for disastrous spills like the one in the Gulf of Mexico from $75 million to $10 billion, not because that change would be too precipitous or grounded in a visceral reaction to a specific event (can anyone say “Patriot Act?”), but (ahem) because that’s what Big Oil wants. You see, if the cap is that high, smaller companies couldn’t afford to take the risk, leaving the field open for the big boys alone. Yes, having taxpayers pick up the tab is a much better idea than expecting the responsible parties to be liable for their own mess. And Big Oil would rather have the cap raised because it would chase out all those Mom-and-Pop oil companies that can afford $75 million but not real money. This, my friends, is the argument of the comparatively sane senator from Kentucky. And not a single Republican said, “um… Mitch… maybe you should try an argument that isn’t preposterous on its face?”.

The point is that the Republicans had an opportunity to be a legitimate political party and chose not to. (N.B., in this construction, “legitimate” is a function of ethics and coherence, not of popularity.) Rather, they decided it was in their best interest to cultivate the largely racist base of the tea party movement, to fund them (covertly, of course), and to try to connect the dots from anti-black to anti-Obama to anti-Democratic to pro-Republican. But they made a calculated gamble in the process: in order to pretend that the tea party wasn’t really an astroturf creation of wealthy and well-connected Republican lobbyists (even though it was), they had to craft the message as anti-Washington elite rather than as specifically anti-Democratic. Trouble is, the actual rank and file of the tea party believed the rhetoric, and started acting like they, not the party bosses, ought to be calling the shots on the ground. And because the Republican leadership is devoid of ideas of how to solve real problems and therefore can’t attract the political middle, they need the tea partiers if they want to be viable. They can’t say what they know to be true: that the hysteria is unwarranted, that taxes are lower now than at any point since the Eisenhower administration (yes, I intentionally picked a link to that well-known left-wing propaganda rag, Forbes magazine), that intemperance may be a way to get noticed, but not necessarily a way to effect useful change.

I suspect that Rand Paul will probably win in the fall. Jack Conway, who defeated Lieutenant Governor and former senatorial candidate Daniel Mongiardo in a very close (43.9-43.2%) primary contest, isn’t widely known, the national media hasn’t been ooh-ing and aah-ing at his every move for the past month, and Kentucky is a Republican state. On the other hand, unlike Paul, Conway has won a statewide race (as Attorney General), by 21 points, no less, and there is another interesting fact: whereas the Republican primary was the one that got all the publicity, it was the Democratic primary that turned out the voters: as I write this, there have been 530,412 Democratic ballots counted, compared to 351,927 on the Republican side: better than a 60-40 divide. That’s a blowout. Moreover, Mr. Paul’s not-so-enlightened-on-human-rights side is bubbling ever closer to the surface. Will any of this matter? Probably not: it's Kentucky.

In Arkansas, nothing is yet settled except for the fact that it’s damned unlikely that Blanche Lincoln will serve another term. Whenever an incumbent fails to reach the 50% threshold in a primary, it’s pretty serious. But Lincoln, who seems to believe in little except expediency (defined in purely personal terms, of course) barely won a plurality, pulling out a 45-42 advantage over Bill Halter, according to the most recent numbers I can find. Any vote for the #3 candidate, D.C. Morrison, of course, was explicitly a vote against Lincoln (the way a vote for “undecided” was a vote against Hillary Clinton in the ’08 primary in Michigan), so it’s clear that Halter currently has the momentum in this race even if he didn’t garner the most votes in this round.

Lincoln still has a big bankroll of mostly corporate money (having it is a good thing; where it came from isn’t, at least in the eyes of many Democrats), so she could quite possibly reverse the trend before the June 8 run-off. But even if she does, she’s wounded by this fight in a way that Halter isn’t, and she’ll have to scamper to the left for the next couple of weeks, then back to the right in the general election, all the while trying to avoid the probably spot-on characterization that she has no real core beliefs other than trying to get re-elected. This seat is very likely going Republican in the fall: it’s almost a better thing to lose now—then the cry could be “if only you’d picked me, we wouldn’t have ended up with John Boozman.” Boozman won 53% of the Republican vote in an 8-person race: pretty impressive. I don’t see Lincoln standing a chance against Boozman; Halter would also be an underdog, but he could at least balance the corporate backing Boozman will receive with labor support.

And so we come to Pennsylvania. All through the election coverage the talking heads yammered on about how Barack Obama didn’t do enough to help Arlen Specter, who was in fact beaten rather handily (8 points, over 80,000 votes) by Representative (and ex-admiral) Joe Sestak. The line-up of Specter supporters included both the President and Vice President, the Governor, the mayors of the state’s two largest cities, labor leaders… indeed, if you’re a player in Pennsylvania Democratic circles, you endorsed Senator Specter. And Sestak has all the charisma of a dry mop. So what happened?

Three things: 1). the White House may have seen its obligation to Senator Specter as simply an endorsement, and indeed may (and should) have come to the conclusion that Specter was going to lose, anyway, and that doing so after being enthusiastically and actively supported by Mssrs. Obama and/or Biden would be to lose political clout without a sufficient potential upside. (Would having Sestak be appreciably worse in any way? No? Well, then…) Moreover, Sestak appears to be the stronger candidate in the general election: a Quinnipiac poll shortly before the primary, for example, showed Sestak, as people got to know him, cutting his deficit from 8 points to 2 against Pat Toomey, whereas Specter slid from 5 to 7 points behind. So the support for Specter from the Obama administration was probably a little less than fervent for a reason. Which brings us to…

2). Arlen Specter has become a hollow echo of his former self, reduced to pedestrian and rather coarse opportunism, an egoistic attitude skewered by Sestak’s campaign in this ad, which shows the long-time Republican all cozy with George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, and closes with the devastating tag, “Arlen Specter switched parties to save one job… his… not yours.” Ow. And wow, too. The fact is that this election wasn’t lost because Obama didn’t do enough. It was lost because the candidate was a frail, philosophically unreliable, 80-year-old, me-first jerk named Arlen Specter. As one Pennsylvania Democrat put it in a comment on one of a number of on-line stories on Sestak’s victory, “I wouldn’t vote for Arlen Specter if Jesus climbed off the cross to ask me personally.” Wow, dude, what do you really think? The problem with the Specter candidacy, then, wasn’t insufficient support from fill-in-the-name-of-somebody-important-here, but that it was the Specter candidacy. To quote the sage aphorism of Nikolai Gogol in The Inspector General, “Don’t blame the mirror for your own ugly mug.”

Finally, 3). Amidst all the big-name politicians and labor leaders, all the organizational prowess of the Pennsylvanian (and especially Philadelphian) Democratic machine, somebody on the Specter campaign forgot to tell the voters that they don’t matter, that they were just supposed to do what they were told. Turns out, tea party Republicans aren’t the only ones who object to being taken for granted. So, Democratic voters—well over half a million of them—went with the superior Democratic candidate… and that isn’t the guy whose party affiliation is predicated on avoiding challenges rather than on political philosophy.

At last, we come to the only real election of the week (not counting the bizarre special election in the Hawaii 1st scheduled for Saturday), the special election in the Pennsylvania 12th. No one quite knows what to do about this result, a conundrum perhaps best exemplified by the story on the NPR website, which called Democrat Mark Critz’s victory over Republican Tim Burns “what may have been the most significant result of the night,” but made no mention at all of the race in the first six paragraphs of the story.

Not surprisingly, the best analysis I’ve found is over at Tom Schaller’s piece there seems to have the right mix of reasonable tea-leaf-reading and equally reasonable reticence. Schaller suggests “the big story--if perhaps overstated or extrapolated too widely--is that Critz' victory is likely to change the Washington conventional wisdom on just how big the expected Republican gains in November will be.” Be it noted: Washington Conventional Wisdom and $1.40 will get you a small coffee at Java Jack’s.

About the only thing that’s clear about this outcome is that RNC Chair Michael Steele’s assertion that “This race should serve notice to Democratic officeholders everywhere that no seat is safe and that voters will not accept business-as-usual” is laughable even by Steele’s standards. Whatever else is true, the fact that a Democrat won a double-digit victory in a district the Republicans thought was in play is not good news for the GOP, especially when this district had been specifically mentioned, not by the pundits but by the RNC, as just the kind of place where the GOP would make significant gains this November. The Pennsylvania 12th is the only district in the country which went for John Kerry in 2004 and for John McCain in 2008: that may be taken as a signal that the area is trending to the right… or as evidence that John Murtha was all too accurate in his observation in October of 2008 that “there is no question that western Pennsylvania is a racist area.” (Or maybe they just like guys named John.)

All that said, as Schaller points out, Critz’s win was nonetheless narrower than his former boss Murtha’s in the 2008 election, even when Murtha was “embattled,” largely by the above-quoted commentary on his constituents. Moreover, Critz isn’t exactly an Obama Democrat: he opposes TARP, claimed in campaign commercials he’d have voted against the health care bill (although he also opposes repealing it), and has an “A” rating from the NRA. Moreover, Republican claims that he assiduously avoided nationalizing the race are no doubt accurate: he concentrated on local issues, whereas Burns ran against Obama and Nancy Pelosi (!) more than he ran against Critz. It remains to be seen whether the GOP learns anything from this failed strategy as the November elections approach. My guess: nope.

So… what, in the jargon of the punditry, is the “take-away” from all this? Well, as I said at the top, not much. There is some evidence that the once-projected GOP takeover of both house of Congress isn’t going to happen in either chamber. But the fact remains that there’s no way of telling what will happen this fall. How the economy is doing will be the big issue, and, frankly, there’s no telling at this point. I doubt the Dems will actually gain seats, but any prognostication now that doesn’t include the word “if” is likely to be a little less accurate than astrology, Tarot cards, or visits to the oracle at Delphi.

Tip O’Neill’s mantra that “All politics is local” fared better this week than any other analysis, and one suspects that it will continue to be sage advice for future candidates. The other observation is really simple: despite all the efforts—on the left and (especially) the right—to thwart such an eventuality, it’s still the people who decide. That is the glorious and terrifying essence of a democratic system.

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