Much ink has been spilled and many blog posts published about three local elections that were decided this week: a special congressional election in New York's 23rd district and governor's races in New Jersey and Virginia. The elections in NY, NJ, and VA, the Republican Party told us, would be referendums on Obama's policies and early indicators of a Republican political comeback.
There are some, including Andrew Sargus Klein of this website, who would have us believe that the recent elections are mere blips on the political radar, and that it is wiser to focus on bigger issues, like "health care and cap and trade and Afghanistan" and, for some reason, Mike Bloomberg. But Klein is too dismissive of the significance of the election results and the strategies that dictated those results. Certainly, health care and environmental regulation and Afghanistan are important. But of similar importance is the fate of one of the two great American political parties.
After their 2008 election defeats, in which Republicans lost control of the White House and found themselves on the wrong end of a 2/3rds majority in the Senate, the Party knew it needed to reinvent itself if it had any hope of redemption. The big question was how to go about doing it.
Early on, it became clear what Republicans were not going to do: align themselves with President Obama or support any of his policy proposals. Most congressional Republicans, save for three lonely GOP senators, voted against Obama's stimulus package. From the very start, Republicans have opposed Obama's attempts to pass a health care reform bill. If such a bill does pass, it will probably do so without a single Republican vote.
The driving force behind the Republicans' increasingly uncooperative stance is their base's belief that the problem with the GOP in 2009 is that it has become too moderate. Although Republicans supported—and continue to support— many of the Bush Administration's policies, they believe the government grew too big during its tenure, and that the Bush tax cuts did not go far enough. The Republican base is furious with their politicians for passing the initial stimulus package in the fall of 2008. Its members are aghast at the prospective second stimulus package of 2009 and the accompanying bailouts of failing American companies, and they want no part of health care reform.
The base's outrage is encouraged and amplified by popular media figures. Indeed, some of the most powerful figures in the battle for Republican Party leadership do not come from the Republican political establishment. Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly are among the most powerful conservative figures in America. When Michael Steele, the newly elected chairman of the Republican National Committee, called Limbaugh an "entertainer," the backlash among conservatives forced Steele to make a quick apology.
With their media heroes' encouragement, the Republican base's outrage spread to New York's 23rd congressional district, where GOP incumbent Dede Scozzafava was undone by conservative disgust with, among other things, her support of the stimulus package and her pro-choice views. She eventually withdrew from the contest. National conservative heavyweights like Sarah Palin, Fred Thompson and Rush Limbaugh endorsed a third party candidate, Doug Hoffman, whose anti-stimulus, anti-health care reform politics made him a favorite of far-right voters. With Scozzafava out of the race, Hoffman's path to victory seemed assured; the 23rd district, after all, had been Republican for well over a century. And yet it, in the end, Democratic candidate Dill Owens took the seat with a solid majority of the vote.
It should be noted that there are many Republicans and independents who identify themselves with a more moderate brand of conservatism. David Brooks, David Frum, Ross Douthat and Andrew Sullivan are but a few well-known conservative thinkers who offer an alternative to the far-rightism of Palin, Limbaugh and Beck. In contrast to the far-right strategy in New York's 23rd district, the governor's races in New Jersey and Virginia featured moderate GOP candidates (Bob McDonnell in Va. and Chris Christie in NJ) who, it was thought, would appeal to conservative independents and disaffected Democrats.
McDonnell's victory in Virginia seemed assured, as resentment towards Obama's policies energized Republicans and alienated conservative independents. Hoffman's path in New York seemed equally likely. The district, after all, was solidly conservative , and with the likes of Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh involved, it was thought that a Democrat would not stand a chance. Christie, the NJ candidate, was a moderate Republican running against an unpopular governor. His chances, it was widely thought, were the worst of the three.
And yet it was Hoffman, and not Christie, who was defeated. The two moderate Republican candidates won in states that had gone for Obama in 2008. The extremely conservative candidate lost in a district that had been safely Republican since around the time of the Civil War.
There is clearly an cognitive dissonance at the heart of the Republican Party. The Republicans who are winning elections in 2009 are moving in a moderate direction, and yet the base and many congressional Republicans are headed in the exact opposite direction. If conservative heavyweights like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh cannot get their candidate elected in a very conservative district in New York, what are the chances that they can elect candidates—or get elected themselves—on a national scale?
The answer is almost certainly "not good." But for conservative figures like Palin and Limbaugh, it's best to ignore that answer because to accept it would be to accept the limits of their own power. Rush Limbaugh would have everyone believe he can influence national elections and yet here is proof that he cannot win a local district in New York. Sarah Palin would have Americans believe she is the only politician who represents their true beliefs. But Bob McDonnell refused her help during his campaign and went on to win the Virginia governorship anyway.
The lesson that Republicans can learn from the 2009 elections is that support of Obama's agenda is not necessarily a kiss of death. Even as the Republican base becomes more conservative and their media heroes more vocal and cynical, the rest of America is a decidedly moderate place. Republicans in the mold of Bob McDonnell and Dede Scozzafa are the party's only hope in its quest to recapture Congress and the White House. In the meantime, it would be wise for moderate Republicans and conservative independents to listen when Palin, Limbaugh, and Beck endorse a candidate—and then vote for his or her opponent.