Alex Massie

Lessons from NY-23 and Virginia?

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My old chum Toby Harnden says yesterday's election results produced a "miserable night" for Barack Obama and clearly losing the gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia was hardly good news for the White House. But if the GOP has grounds for crowing there, then the result from NY-23, where Doug Hoffman's conservative candidacy was rejected in a constituency in which the Democratic candidate usually fails to win more than 35% of the vote, was an indication of the limits of Palinism.

True, as Toby says, the local complicating factors in upstate NY were such as to make drawing too many conclusions from it a pretty hazardous business. But the fact remains that the district's new Congressman is a Democrat and that he's representing a constituency so conservative that the Democratic party doesn't even always bother to contest it.

To the extent, then, that Sarah Palin is the ruin, not the future of the Republican party this was a warning shot that, theoretically at least, could help the GOP save itself from its own worst instincts. Well, that's the theory.

More generally, it was a bloody night for incumbents. Even Mike Bloomberg, despite his millions and no-name challenger, only won by five points in New York City. We're so used to tough economic times by now that we sometimes forget, or under-estimate, the extent to which the economy makes it better to be the challenger than the incumbent.

As Megan McArdle says, yesterday's results give everyone something to spin with. How much does 2009 or even 2010 matter for 2012? Not hugely, perhaps. The GOP should pick up 20 seats next year and do pretty well in the state houses too, but that doesn't mean it's ready for a real revival at a national level. It's a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the Republican comeback. When more than 80% of voters say they're worried by the economy the opposition better win 'cos if it don't it's done.

To the extent that Obama has disappointed, then, it's partly a consequence of seeming to be failing to get much done. Where Congress has passed legislation, it's been the sort of stuff that terrifies independents - the voters most easily frightened and most conscious, perhaps, of the fiscal hole the US finds itself in. And, because they don't really like politics, independents are also the most likely to vote against incumbants. 

But they also want to munch their cake. So, assuming some kind of health care bill passes, independents may well respond to it favourably. On a tactical level, if I were a Republican I'd do my utmost to kill health care regardless of the merits of the bill. Frustrate health care and you basically kill Nancy Pelosi's Congress. Granted, that's an agenda for opposition not power, but Washington weren't built in a day, right? If Congress passes health care, however, then everything changes: suddenly it's not quite a Do-Nothing Congress and suddenly Congress might not be such a drag on the President's own ratings.

More generally, however, one of the lessons of Obama's first year is that being President is very hard. We sometimes forget this. Bill Clinton's first year in office was a disaster and George W Bush's was no great shakes either. It takes time to learn hw to do a job for which there is no real or satisfactory preparation.

Democrats will take their lumps next year, but the real vote is in 2012, not 2010 and so, for all that it's much better to win in the off-years than lose, the GOP and pundits alike should probably resist the temptation to read too much into these results.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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