Wednesday, November 04, 2009


Changing Winds Of Change

Consider the two portentous signs Barack Obama received Tuesday. Taken together, they represent perhaps the biggest obstacle yet to passing the sweeping health care reform that consumed most of the energy of his first year in office.

Sign No. 1 was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, chastened by reaction from his colleagues his pushing a public option, basically saying that a vote on health care might not occur until the beginning of next year. That's a major disappointment for a White House that originally demanded a vote on health care before the August recess.

But the direr sign came from the American people: Voters across the country, when given the chance, used off-year elections to toss out incumbents -- especially Democrats. But even a technically popular non-Democrat incumbent like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg needed every bit of his $100 million campaign war chest to win a narrow re-election over a decent, yet-over-matched City Comptroller Bill Thompson. Even that race is a headache-in-hindsight for the president. Democrats are saying that had Obama done a little bit more campaigning for Thompson, he could have elected the Democrat mayor of New York City. (The NYC race is deserving of a separate blog post a bit later.)

Then again, Democrats have very little to hang their hats on this morning. Republicans swept both gubernatorial races with Bob McDonnell trouncing Creigh Deeds in Virginia (after eight years of Democratic rule in the Old Dominion) and challenger Chris Christie ousting incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in New Jersey. Corzine's loss had to render a particular sting. Though President Obama was not on the ballot, he campaigned extensively for Corzine -- including this past weekend. The White House reportedly dispatched former Obama campaign personnel to try pushing Corzine over the finish line. Regardless, the president was much more invested in Jersey than he was in Virginia. Given the natural advantages that a Democrat should have in a deep-blue state, putting so much of the president's mojo on the line makes the result look like a repudiation of Obama.

Most sobering is that the independents who fueled the Democratic takeover of the House and Senate in 2006 and 2008 surged toward McDonnell and Christie by a factor of 2-1. Independents giveth -- and independents have the power to taketh away.

Ironically, the one spot that gives Democrats something to smile about is the much-ballyhooed NY 23rd congressional district in New York. The civil war between the conservative and liberal parts of the Republican Party ended in a not-so-surprising result: Democrat Bill Owens eked out a win over Conservative Party insurgent/Sarah Palin-endorsed Doug Hoffman. Republican Dede Scozzafava who dropped out -- and then endorsed Owens -- ended up with about about 5 percent. The district that hasn't elected a Democrat since the Civil War did so now. The result helps Democrats in the short-run as it adds one more vote to their majority (though figure Owens will be one more Blue Dog Democrat to bedevil liberals looking for a public option in health care). It also helps Democratic strategists and pundits in the long run by helping them mine the "moderates are no longer welcome in the Republican Party" storyline.

Put the largest share of the blame for that fiasco on the brain-dead Republican Party of New York. Rather than allow a primary to take place -- which could have produced a candidate that wouldn't have sparked a rebellion by conservatives -- instead appointed Scozzafava in a back-room deal. Conservatives, meanwhile, might learn the lesson that -- if you do want to run a third-party candidate, you might do a little better if your chosen candidate actually lived in the district and at least pretended to care about some local issues (Hoffman did neither).

But, the lesson to be drawn Tuesday is a tough one for the White House to absorb going into 2010's midterms. Exit polls in both New Jersey and Virginia -- and cursory evidence in some contests in suburban New York -- show that fiscal concerns of economy/jobs/taxes are far and away the uppermost concern in the minds of voters. Nothing else comes close.

And that especially includes the president's aforementioned pet project -- health care.

The election results will embolden Democrats already wary about certain aspects of the health care plans working through Congress. Senate Democrats facing the voters next year -- like Louisiana's Mary Landrieu and Arkansas' Blanche Lambert Lincoln (a state John McCain won by 20 points) -- will be even more opposed to a public option. As will many Blue Dog Democrats.

After Tuesday, elected Democrats not wishing to share the same fate as that of other members of their party may be united in one significant respect -- the message they have for the White House: Perhaps curing the nation's economic ills should come before pushing forward a complicated, out-sized health care proposal.

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