Some Thoughts on Barack Obama's Awful Evening

Published November 4, 2009

Commentary Web Exclusive

1. The outcome of the New Jersey governor's race and the magnitude of the victory by Bob McDonnell and other Virginia Republicans will have unusually far-reaching ramifications for a off-year election, including on the health-care debate. I have said before that while politicians follow polls carefully, they really follow election results carefully. And the results in New Jersey and Virginia will send a message to many Democrats: Obamaism in general — and ObamaCare in particular — can be hazardous to your political health. That is, I think, the most immediate impact of what happened last night. The results might be leveraged in a way to defeat health-care legislation that helped fuel last night's anti-Democratic uprising.

It is too much to say that the Virginia and New Jersey races were referendums on President Obama; no statewide race is ever strictly or even primarily a referendum on a national political figure. But because of the economic state of the country, and the scope, reach, and ambition of Obama's domestic programs, the president was more of a factor than would usually be the case. What we witnessed last night has to be interpreted at least in part as a repudiation of President Obama's policies (the president himself remains fairly popular personally). The effort by the White House to pretend otherwise is silly. In New Jersey in particular, a full-court press was put on — from repeated Obama visits to the state, to pouring in huge financial resources (Governor-elect Christie was outspent by a margin of around 3-to-1), to a barrage of relentlessly negative attacks by Jon Corzine against Christie. To have done all that and to still have lost New Jersey is quite amazing.

I realize the Democrats will try to take comfort from what happened in New York's 23rd District. If they find some relief from their acute distress, fine. But the significance of what happened in two states dwarfs what happened in a single district, facing quite unusual circumstances.

2. Among the important by-products of this election is that it will encourage many impressive and capable Republicans from around the country to become candidates. They now believe, with justification, that 2010 looks to be a very good year for the GOP. If an individual ever wanted to toss his hat into the ring, this is the time to do it.

It's worth noting that more than half of the GOP candidates who won races in 1994 decided to become candidates after the November 1993 off-year elections, when Republicans George Allen and Christie Todd Whitman took control of the governorships in both Virginia and New Jersey. So last night was a great boon for candidate recruitment.

3. There is a lot of frightening data for Democrats to sort through, but among the most alarming is this: both Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie won independents by enormous margins (McDonnell carried 63 percent of independent voters, while Christie carried 58 percent of them, according to exit polls). Whatever problems the Republican “brand” still has — and they are real and still need to be addressed — candidates running as Republicans have shown an impressive ability to win over independents. And winning elections is the name of the game.

4. Bush-bashing is passé. Both Creigh Deeds and Jon Corzine tried making their races a referendum on George W. Bush. The former got crushed and the latter suffered a humiliating loss in a state deeply sympathetic to his party. More broadly, voters, facing very serious times, are looking for serious, mature political figures to rally around. And they have little patience for small-minded, petty, and diversionary tactics. Creigh Deeds's effort to make the race a referendum about Bob McDonnell's graduate-school thesis failed badly; so did Jon Corzine's effort to make the New Jersey vote a referendum on Chris Christie's waistline.

5. Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod lost a whole lot of political luster based on last night's results. Emanuel's counsel that no crisis should be allowed to go to waste — meaning that President Obama should use the economic crisis he faced to push for a massive expansion in the size, scope, and reach of the state — looks to have been a massive strategic error.

6. Bob McDonnell ran what will become a model campaign for many other Republicans. Virginia's governor-elect came across as conservative and practical, substantive and solution-based, disciplined and focused, calm and reassuring. He tapped into the fear and concerns of voters and seemed able to channel them in all the right ways. For Republicans to continue the restoration of public trust in their party, they must stand against Obamaism, in all its particulars, and offer compelling answers to pressing public needs.

7. There will be a tendency among Democrats to react to last night's elections in different ways. Some will insist that this was a passing storm with no long-term implications. Others will argue that the public wanted what Obama was peddling — but it only wants it faster. So if deeply unpopular health-care legislation had been passed in, say, August, all would be right with the world this morning. Still others will take away from last night the idea that Democrats need to be more negative and more aggressive. In other words, they need more candidates parroting angry white men like Keith Olbermann, Frank Rich, and Paul Krugman. The one takeaway that would actually do Democrats some good — namely, that a major recalibration is in order and that they need to pull back from their feverish effort to ram down the throats of the public a deeply liberal and increasingly unpopular agenda — is probably the one that will be most ignored.

“Today,” proclaimed the Democratic strategist James Carville earlier this year, “a Democratic majority is emerging, and it's my hypothesis, one I share with a great many others, that this majority will guarantee the Democrats remain in power for the next 40 years.” Added Michael Lind after last November's campaign: “The election of Barack Obama to the presidency may signal more than the end of an era of Republican presidential dominance and conservative ideology. It may mark the beginning of a Fourth Republic of the United States.” That 40-year, beginning-of-the-Fourth-Republic reign on power looks to be in a good deal of trouble after only nine months.

Democrats still hold power, however, and Republicans still have ground to make up. Things can change quickly again. Nothing is set in stone. Still, last night was a significant political moment, one that might be a harbinger for much worse things for Obama and Obamaism.

Democrats have reason to be afraid, very afraid.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.

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