Given the orgy of gloating on the right and the hand-wringing on the left that followed this week's elections, it would not seem unreasonable to conclude that next year's midterm elections have already been decided via Tuesday's results.
The parties -- and their associated franchises in the punditocracy -- have split in predictable ways. Progressives see the two congressional special elections, which Democrats won in New York and California, as way more predictive of the national political mood than the two governor's races, which they lost in Virginia and New Jersey. Meanwhile, Republicans are ecstatic about their high-profile gubernatorial victories and what the results portend for 2010. The truth is that Tuesday's wins and losses tell us next to nothing about next year's elections.
Here is what they do reveal: The GOP won in Virginia because it had a better candidate and ran a better campaign. In New Jersey, Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine was so damaged that all Republican candidate Chris Christie had to do was avoid Corzine's self-implosion. Not even $23 million of his own money combined with a deep reservoir of Democratic goodwill in the Garden State could save Corzine. The circumstances of the Democratic win in the New York House race were so bizarre that they would be impossible to re-create next year -- or maybe ever. (The stars probably won't realign to produce a vacancy in a solidly conservative district and a dramatic political cleansing of the GOP, all leading to the endorsement of a Democrat by the sacrificial Republican candidate.) In California, a veteran politician with good name recognition held on to a liberal-leaning district -- a routine affair as any.
So set aside the wishful thinking and self-delusion that go into election prognostication, and Tuesday should not have been that big of a surprise. And, in my mind, the results do not represent some of the huge shifts in the political terrain that others see, or maybe, just hope for. Granted, Americans are indeed politically jittery because they have much to be nervous about, but they are not angry yet. Certainly, Obama and the Democrats are not facing the same kind of widespread anger we saw directed at George W. Bush and the Republicans during the second half of that presidency. But voters do tend to hold those in charge accountable for whatever situation angers them; they want something done about their anxiety, and as a result, they will hold Democrats to a higher standard than Republicans when they go to the polls next year. That's the price of being in charge, and no amount of soul-searching, recalibrating, or backtracking in the wake of Tuesday's elections changes that calculus.
Democrats were elected to do things -- fix the economy, reform health care, reduce climate change. And if they let the Republicans or their own lack of resolve stop them from addressing these problems, the price will be a steep one to pay. Now, there is talk of slowing down the health-care reform bill in the Senate. That sounds like a bad idea on its face, since doing so would make the White House look weak and indecisive -- dithering is among the most unforgivable of political sins. But frankly, the bottom line for the party is that unless Obama can go to the American people before next November and report that the economy is on the mend -- that jobs are being created and that their patience is paying off -- then nothing Democrats do will matter, even if they pass health-care reform or learn whatever big lessons they apparently see in Tuesday's results.
While I think the elections offer political lessons for both parties, the big danger is that they may learn exactly the wrong ones and ultimately revert to their natural tendencies -- overreaching behavior on the GOP's part and a kind of muddle-mouthed timidity on Democrats'. Republicans need to confront the fact that they are still Bush's party with nothing new to offer -- they're still coasting on Reagan-era sound bites about lower taxes, smaller government, and a kind of free-form notion that Democrats are bad for America.
Democrats, on the other hand, must resist the urge to run for cover in the heat of a big argument. They should not try to distance themselves from the president and his policies, simply from fear of controversy. In this regard, I agree with an observation made by my Prospect colleague Tim Fernholz who writes that "the real significance of Tuesday's results is how they will influence politicians in the coming months." For the Democrats, this is no time for cowardice.
Tuesday's races shared little in common with last year's presidential election. It's no wonder the coalition that elected Barack Obama president stayed home. If Democrats want something to be concerned about, there it is. The new base of their party is looking for action and has expectations. The voters who supported Obama want to see progress in the agenda items from the 2008 election. They want good candidates who can articulate the party's ideas and its ideals. They also want clean campaigns with substance. That's something all those nervous congressional Democrats can put in their pockets as they try to determine how their votes on health care or climate change will affect their chances in 2010.
And as for the real results of those midterms, we're going to have to wait until next year.