Rather than being an overwhelming sweep, most elections are a mix of good and bad news for each political party and the progressive and conservative movements in our country, and the 2009 off-year elections certainly fits into that category.
In the category of the expected, both parties had easy wins: Bob McDonnell won the VA Governor's race in a blowout, while progressive Democrat John Garamendi easily won the Congressional special election to replace Blue Dog Ellen Tauscher. In the more competitive races, the Republicans won the NJ Gov race, and the Republicans/conservative movement lost the special Congressional election in NY 23rd. And in the saddest news of the day for progressives, the Maine ballot initiative to strip marriage rights from gays and lesbians narrowly won, although progressives won some other initiative battles like the fight against the highly regressive TABOR initiative in ME.
Republicans, conservative Democrats, and corporate lobbyists are all eagerly lining up to spin the losses in the two governors' races as evidence that Democrats should become more cautious, go slower with change, pull back on their ambitions. That is the worst possible thing Democrats could do right now. It's a little like conservatives saying that the problem in NY-23 was that Republicans just weren't conservative enough, which you know they will be somehow trying to spin.
Let me try to explain this to the caution captains in my party. There are two reasons we lost those Governors' races yesterday, and they are closely related: voters are in a foul mood, and base Democrats - young folks, unmarried women, minorities - didn't come out.
Let's just spend a minute talking about the economy. Unless we start to produce a whole lot more jobs than even the optimists are projecting right now, voters are going to be in a really foul mood a year from now when they go to vote. Going back all the way to the recession of 2000/2001, economic conditions for most Americans have not been particularly rosy - even in the best of the Bush years, job creation remained too slow to keep up with the new people entering the work force, and wages stayed flat even as expenses on basic necessities like health care, groceries, gas, housing, and college tuition spiked ever higher.
Then the new recession started in late 2007, followed by the financial panic and much deeper economic crisis of 2008. By November of 2010, we will have had the middle class going through seven years of a financially squeezing stagnation followed by three years of economic hell. So most Americans are going to walk into the polling booth a year from now feeling - well, how do I put this in the most analytical way? - really, really pissed. They are going to be looking at taking out their anger on someone, at sending a message that can be clearly heard.
And for the young people who haven't found decent jobs, economically struggling single women, and minority voters who overwhelmingly voted for Obama and other Democrats in 2008 and 2010, they could well be feeling that they haven't seen change they can believe in, that they haven't seen the Democrats they voted for and in many cases worked for delivering anything that matters to their lives, and that will make them very tough to get out to vote. That's what happened in NJ and VA this year, and it is incumbent on Democrats to change that dynamic in time for the election in 2010.
In the face of a weak economy, angry voters, and a discouraged Democratic base, Democrats have exactly one chance at surviving the elections a year from now: deliver the goods. You ran on change in 2008, and voters don't feel like things have changed enough. You ran on taking on the powerful special interests and they still have too much power. You can't afford to get even more cautious, to change things even less, to take on the powerful not so much. We need health care reform that checks the power of the big insurers, and banking policy that ends the overwhelming power of the big banks. We need to produce good jobs now, and not wait for the trickle down policy of waiting for the banks to someday lend to business which will someday hire workers.
Fortunately for us Democrats, the Republicans will continue to hand us some gifts like NY-23. They are moving far enough to the right that we will get lucky in some elections we wouldn't otherwise win, and God bless them for it. But that won't happen often enough. We are going to need to craft a strategy for winning that is based on deserving to win because we delivered important, tangible things that mattered to voters, things that make angry voters understand that we share their anger and are doing something to change things so their lives will be better, and things that help Democratic base voters feel like it is worth voting again.
Now is the time for Democrats to stop listening to the whiners who counsel go slow and be cautious on change, and to deliver on the change they so boldly promised.