I had a more birds-eye view of this year's elections than usual, because I've been working on campaigns at the local level. Since I started writing this blog, I've liked to look at the aftermath of elections, partly because in this age of over-polling, I tend to think elections are the only really useful test of the public mood. We'll tell pollsters anything, but in the voting booth, somehow, the truth will out.
While I hoped to write some things leading into the vote, truth is, this is the post I was planning to write anyway; the big elections went mostly as I expected, and predicted outcomes aren't the point. It's what we do with what we know, and what happens next that I tend to think matters most, so here goes... just some observations on the winning and losing trends from last night's elections:
Winner: Our Worst Instincts. In race after race, it's clear that nice does not cut it. Massive amounts of money spent on ugly, divisive ads, frequently featuring frank distortions of factual evidence to define one's opponent got results, and mostly, no one cared. Ken Cuccinelli was doomed when Terry McAuliffe did what he does best - raise tons of money and spend it on attack ads. Chris Christie hardly needed to bother, but he struck early painting Barbara Buono as a tax raising liberal. And poor Joe Lhota never had a chance, even if the worst he could come up with is that electing deBlasio might send New York back to the bad old days... that no one even remembers. More locally, County Executive races in the NY suburbs brought out similar tactics, especially in Rob Astorino's brutal ads agaist Noam Bramson, but Ed Mangano used similar tactics against Tom Suozzi on Long Island. We may say it's ugly and want to change channels... but the baseless charges often stick and many voters aren't especially concerned with details. That's not a good thing... but this isn't about good, or nice.
Winner: Your New Best Friend. Many Democrats and some Republicans needed that extra bit of coaxing to cross the party line. Hence the disappearance of party labels from closing ads, usually offering sunny pictures of sensitive family men and their ordinary guy stats. Chris Christie's just a nice guy trying to make things better, right? Rob Astorino portrayed himself as the average Westchester neighbor.... and in a large chunk of white suburban Westchester, he looked just right. Had Ken Cuccinelli been better advised, he might well have erased some of McAuliffe's created negativity by protraying himself less as a conservative firebrand and more as a concerned dad just looking out for Virginia's families. The reality is, Democrats are (still) hopeless at fighting this kind of presentation often, and it's why the GOP's star field is top heavy with handsome, yet sensitive, dads in suits. Someone needs to crack that code, not clone it.
Winner: Hillary Clinton. Isn't she always? But seriously. No, seriously. The Democrats top stories of the night - Terry McAuliffe and Bill deBlasio - share one point of commonality, whether it's McAuliffe's role as her go-to fundraiser, or deBlasio's hand in running her first Senate campaign. She's now got cllose friends running America's money and media metropolis, and the most key of key swing states. I dunno... are you ready yet?
Winner: Narcissism. All over the place, the big winners were more about a Cult of Personality than anything like a great set of fresh ideas, or a movement of like-minded leaders. There were no coat tails - both McAuliffe and Christie will still have to govern against legislatures chock full of incumbents from the other party whose elections were never in any danger. Even if McAuliffe helped lead a full transformation of Virginia's top offices (if the squeaker for Atorney General stays their way), there's no mandate. And amongst Republicans, that's probably a good indication of the party's continued dance with death - Christie couldn't win embracing a traditional Republican label, but he could by casting himself as the hero of the whole story. But liberals and progressives should be concerned too, about an all too short list of the same names in big roles (like the Clitons and McAuliffe), the history of electing Barack Obama on similar grounds, and little in the way of fresh ideas. Bill deBlasio? Perhaps he does represent more of a progressive trend, but a near 50 point margin wasn't ever just about ideas, it was a big story about image (that family!) and backstory.
And what lost?
Loser: Extremism on the Right (at least in the open). Conservatives are already whining about money and time... but Ken Cuccinelli's failings were deep and obvious, and started with a string of extreme views that he never really tried to deny or hide. The honesty's refreshing, but hard right types need to face the reality, quick: you're losing with this stuff because people don't agree with you. Period. Cuccinelli's social positions, opposition to minimum wage, secession movements in Colorado and elsewhere... these are unpopular dead ends, and easy pickings for liberal ad makers. Avene if the GOP itself managed to right the ship a bit by dumping a Tea Party type in Alabama's special election, the party is riven by divisions over tactics and fundamental beliefs. And in that sense Chris Christie may yet be the Party's solution more than we realize - his real skill may be masking deep conservatism with moderate-friendly soft pedaling and a tough talking persona. Luckily, outside of New Jersey, true conservatives don't seem to believe him.
Loser: Mike Bloomberg. From top to bottom, the New York City elections were a rejection of virtually everything Bloomberg ever did: the next Mayor says his focus will be on people in need, affordable housing, smarter policing and a different approach to education. And if Bill DiBlasio can lose the urge to take up the soda crusade... then the public seems willing to go along. Bloomberg might well have saved himself and his reputation had he gone gently into the night after his second term; instead he sledgehammered term limits, remained tetchy and defensive when questioned, and offered a virtual blueprint on what not to do to win this year's Mayor's race. NYC may have some lovely improvements to point to in 12 years. Myself, I'm not a fan of bike lanes and those rent-a-bikes, but it's hard to deny the lovely upper middle class suburb Manhattan has become. Unless, of course, you can't afford it. And that's the problem, really, isn;t it?
Loser: Country Living. You coud say "winner: polarization," but it's more than that - this year showed the growing power of urban enclaves, which are getting wealthier and more socially liberal. From Northern Virginia to New Jersey's coast to Manhattan, the winners on Tuesday had to attract the sophisticated, college educated urbanite to win. And even in the suburbs, Republicans might win local elections (all of New York City's first ring suburban counties on the New York side are now run by Republicans), but they all won by collecting crossover votes of city working commuters - as did Chris Christie. Suburban towns and villages are feeling the weight of years of pushing urban problems onto their doorsteps - making poverty, food, and affordable housing suddenly their problems, too - but there are few good answers. While urbanites want liberal ideas (and fancy amenities), rural voters want back to basics and not a lot of coddling. Result? Socially liberal boilerplate and promises not to raise taxes. Good luck with that.
Loser: Change. Maybe it's a feeling of uncertainty, maybe it's a lack of fresh ideas... but this was an election with little real change and a lot of safe voting. Even the "upsets" weren't especially upsetting, certainly not surprising. And Bill deBlasio certainly does represent the big exception here, but a liberal running New York City hardly seems that odd or unexpected - the oddity has been those Giuliani and Bloomberg years, where "New York City Republican" was the synonym for "unicorn". Which is to say, the more things changed this year... the more they stayed the same.
Loser: Localizing the healthcare debate. Cuccinelli may have crowed about making healthcare "central" to the election conversation in Virginia... but he still lost as a result. Opposing Obamacare may ignite the faithful, but Republicans basically demonstrated, on a big stage, that this argument doesn't close the deal. It may be that hitting healthcare, combined with other factors, may produce winning results - Cuccinelli's other problems are the real story anyway. And if, say, Mary Landrieu were to lose next year, maybe healthcare can be blamed... but the GOP has wanted that scalp since Landrieu was first elected, and beating her will be about all of that history as well. Lacking a coherent alternative, forcing an argument mainly based on anger and obvious dislike for the President, conservatives don't really have a story to tell about healthcare, even with the troubled website and some people with hard stories - and it's not as if Democrats have been attractive to the kind of hard driving entrepeneur who runs a small personal business and banks on cut rate insurance and a plan to never get sick. That guy is a Republican, and always has been. On the other hand, some waitress whose restaurant owner never offered insurance, who can now find reasonable insurance on an exchange was, and will be, a Democrat. And that's why both sides can tell a story that works for them. Your move, conservatives.