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 CK MacLeod
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.