Green Room

The Main Lesson from Election Night: Fear Is Good, but the Party Is Where the Action Is

posted at 2:03 pm on November 4, 2009 by

Observing the results of last night’s elections, grassroots conservatives with national concerns should note with some pleasure that we’re well past the “first they laugh at you” phase, and well into the “then they fear you” phase. That transition required, and got, some anticipatory “and then you win”‘s in the great purple Commonwealth of Virgina and the deep blue Garden State. Only in puny NY-23, a fraught race to replace the purploid Representative McHugh (a Republican who voted for Cap & Trade and joined the Obama Administration as Army Secretary), was there some minor disappointment – but nothing close to a real setback.

It always sounds hard-nosed and very Carville-Axelrod Machiavellian (apologies to Machiavelli) to treat winning as “the only thing,” but what’s true for sports and games and consultant job prospects isn’t true for our political life, where every game is equally a play in a larger game, yet every play a game in itself, and, more important, where the final scores are about people’s lives and fortunes, not just standings, bragging rights, and next year’s draft choices. So, Ed Morrissey is probably more than half right when he puts a good face on NY-23:

It’s never a best-case for the GOP when a Democrat wins, but by keeping Dede Scozzafava out of the seat, the GOP has the chance to win this seat back in a year with a better candidate — perhaps Hoffman, perhaps another Republican who shares core principles of limited government and fiscal conservatism. Dislodging an incumbent Republican would have been considerably more difficult, and a unified GOP should win this district — especially given the signals sent everywhere else to Democrats.

If the Dems lose big next year and if winner Bill Owens is forced to walk the plank on unpopular positions, the Rs could get the seat right back, but I’m not convinced that this seat will necessarily be one of the easier ones to pick up. However, I’m even less convinced that it matters much in the grand scheme of things. Never heard of the district before, and I expect it will be at most a footnote next year: No offense, Watertownies – but you’re 3,000 miles from me.

Hoffman has said he wants to give it another try, and he should be a much better prepared candidate the next time around, but this time, for all the “Mr. Smith” talk, he was neither the most dynamic nor the most firmly grounded character ever to grab the attention of an insurgent political movement. He might be a smart, decent, brave, and unpretentious fellow (with a cool car collection!), but may have come across to NY-23 voters as a little bit more carpetbagger than tea… party hero, more Don Knotts (Barney Fife, not Mr. Limpet) than Jimmy Stewart. Next time around, he may just seem like more of a known quantity, and, for NY-23 voters, “one of us.” He may be slicker without seeming slick. He might be the perfect candidate, or close enough. Or maybe not…

By no means, however, can the loss be pinned solely on Mr. Hoffman, nor are the lessons to be drawn from it merely to be applied in and around the St. Lawrence Seaway.  What’s clear from the closeness of the finish – ca. 49 -45 (and 6 to the nominal “Republican” who dropped out at the last minute and endorsed the Democrat), is that this election could have gone to the conservative if one of any of several further conditions had applied: If, in addition to capturing the imagination of conservatives nationally, and with or without a more articulate presentation and dynamic self-presentation, Hoffman had offered detailed knowledge of local concerns and/or had a more convincing, locally grounded positive message and/or had a unified and credible party organization behind him and/or hadn’t been knifed in the back in the last days by the “Republican” and/or hadn’t been forced to mount a come-from-behind, off-the-top-ballot-lines campaign in an off-year/early-voted special election… he likely would have won, and possibly would have won big.

As for movement conservatives still left with mixed feelings about what occurred, the lesson seems obvious, and is, I believe, already being absorbed: For the foreseeable future and on this side of the Apocalypse, the electoral action will remain in the R party of Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell – and Michael Steele and John Boehner and even Newt Gingrich – not in the fantasy 3rd Party of Glenn Beck’s musings or in the bloody shambles after a conservative night of the long knives. Big victories went to the unified party-movement – Virginia – not to the fractured party + movement in NY-23. For a Tea Party insurgency to start winning more often than spoiling, it would probably have to be around for a few years at least, not just a few months – and even then it would likely need a well-timed crack in the world or a civil war on the horizon to get the last bit of necessary oomph.

In the meantime, nationalizing a local election is always a tricky operation, and, for a political movement that in many ways is about re-asserting ground level, human scale control of our political life, there’s something contradictory about relying on national figures like Fred! and Sarah!, and the national rejection of the President’s or Speaker’s agenda, to empower (and finance) yourselves. We need both legs – the standing leg in the everyday lives and aspirations of voters, the kicking leg of issues that connect national and even global dangers and objectives to those voters. It’s the job of a party, though not just the party, to connect the two, and clearly the Republican Party still needs substantial legwork, at all levels.

cross-posted at Zombie Contentions

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Very good post.

I think the unintended benefit of Hoffman’s loss is that it removes a lot of the fuel from the 3rd party fire that was starting.

Hopefully the loss will cause conservatives to shift their focus towards taking the GOP over from within, similar to how the progressives did it to the Dems. Ruthless financial pressure on the establishment during the primary process, but no real talk of leaving the party.

BadgerHawk on November 4, 2009 at 2:37 PM

I think you kind of miss the boat here in a very important aspect, CK.

For the foreseeable future and on this side of the Apocalypse, the electoral action will remain in the R party of Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell – and Michael Steele and John Boehner and even Newt Gingrich – not in the fantasy 3rd Party of Glenn Beck’s musings or in the bloody shambles after a conservative night of the long knives.

This is a shining example of why primary politics is so important to our two-party system. If there were a primary this time out, Steele and Gingrich would not have been able to louse this thing up as badly as they did.

This wasn’t a three-party contest. It was a special election throughout which the country-club republicans showed their true colors.

gryphon202 on November 4, 2009 at 4:49 PM

gryphon, you make a good point. A primary would have made it possible for a credible and immediate transmission of the will of the voters. But I’m not sure that we learned much about the true colors of anyone that we didn’t already knew.

Gingrich and Steele are “party men” as much or more than they are “Country Club” Republicans: Gingrich by inclination and history, and Steele by his job description, see themselves as obligated to protect the interests of the party – which includes letting local parties handle (and sometimes mishandle) things according to their own lights and laws, and also means sticking by candidates once recruited and nominated.

I was on the other side of Gingrich on this one, but dumping on him and Steele’s a bit unfair. As I suggested under Dr Zero’s post today on the same subject, NY-23 was a come as you are party. Another way of putting it, is that the ground was shifting beneath everyone’s feet at the time the locals – pols from a squishy Northeast party organization – settled on the Scozz by plurality committee vote. They were who they were – custodians of a beaten down party looking for the replacement for a squishy office-holder. They made a bad call, as they were almost destined to – and the rest is history.

CK MacLeod on November 4, 2009 at 5:38 PM

The entire notion of “party men” is toxic to the nation, IMO.

TheUnrepentantGeek on November 4, 2009 at 5:43 PM

This post has been promoted to HotAir.com.

Comments have been closed on this post but the discussion continues here.

Allahpundit on November 4, 2009 at 5:46 PM

Great, AP. I clicked on the link, and got a 404 error. Help?

gryphon202 on November 4, 2009 at 5:48 PM

“No offense, Watertownies – but you’re 3,000 miles from me .”

Wow! That about says it all.

Not “3000 miles from D.C.”. Not “3000 miles from NYC”. Not even “3000 miles from nowhere”.

Guess what, schmuck? YOU don’t vote for Representatives in NY 23d. Or PA 5th. Or OH 17th. Or WY 1. Or TX 13.

The Green Room was the only part of HotAir that I still took seriously. Now even this portion is home to useless psuedo-conservative neo-statists.

Here’s a little test to see if you, too, are a schmuck like CK (short for Calvin Klein, fruitcake?):
Who do you vote for?
1. A Republican who is not a Conservative; or
2. A Conservative who is not a Republican?

This is the only situation that MacLeod’s whole “argument” is relevant to.

If a candidate is both a conservative and a republican – you vote for him.

If a candidate is neither a conservative nor a republican – you vote against him.

So either CK is suggesting that YOU should vote for a Non-Conservative Republican in YOUR district (3000 miles away from HIM and therefore n insignificant backwater filled with mouth-breathing cretins and slack-jawed halfwits) simply because there is an R after his name OR he’s just wasted his, your, and my time with a meaningless NON-argument that has no point or relevance.

Eyas on November 4, 2009 at 5:57 PM

Gingrich and Steele are “party men” as much or more than they are “Country Club” Republicans: Gingrich by inclination and history, and Steele by his job description, see themselves as obligated to protect the interests of the party – which includes letting local parties handle (and sometimes mishandle) things according to their own lights and laws, and also means sticking by candidates once recruited and nominated.

But where do the principles espoused in the official party platform come in here? Is it all just so much worthless posturing, or do we have the right – nay, duty to expect our elected representatives to espouse their own stinking party platforms?

They were who they were – custodians of a beaten down party looking for the replacement for a squishy office-holder. They made a bad call, as they were almost destined to – and the rest is history.

I wish I could remain so sanguine. I come from a state with less than half the population of any of the individual borroughs of New York City. By rights, I know that the NY-23 debacle shouldn’t tick me off so much, but it does, and it does tick me off precisely because I see it differently: When Newt made his “collision with destiny,” as so many people on our side seem to view this, he was called out. Then he doubled down and told us why we were all wrong to not embrace Scozzafava. Then he spent over 900 grand on a non-entity who ended up literally endorsing the opposing party’s candidate. What did I miss here?

Newt didn’t put his trust in the local party leaders. Okay, so maybe he did, but if it would have stopped there, I don’t think there would have been such a backlash. He committed the sin of putting party before principle. How do I know he did that? Cause he said as much. It’s not an unforgivable sin, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s one that the Republican Party will have to show some repentance for before they get a single dime of my money.

And for what it’s worth, I consider myself a diehard conservative — even though I am a registered Independent, and have been since 2002.

gryphon202 on November 4, 2009 at 5:58 PM