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Rep. Earl Blumenauer

Rep. Earl Blumenauer

Posted: November 4, 2009 06:03 PM

"Harvard Beats Yale 29-29" - Thoughts on NY-23

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Examining the election results for the New York 23rd Congressional District, I could only think of the headline in the Harvard Crimson reporting on the results of the famous 1968 football game and recent movie Harvard Beats Yale 29-29! It was a famous football game where the unbeaten Yale Bulldogs with quarterback Brian Dowling (BD of Doonsebury fame who hadn’t lost a football game since junior high) managed to squander a sixteen point lead in the game’s final two minutes.

In football games and elections, the outcome can differ from the actual result.

The special election in New York’s 23rd was fierce, hand-to-hand ideological combat with a platoon of national figures, millions of dollars and extraordinary media scrutiny. After the flood of last-minute momentum and attention, forcing the Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava from the race, and the loss of a seat that Republicans had held for over a century, the Republicans should be discouraged, right?


And Democrats, having added a seat that had been in Republican hands since Abraham Lincoln was president to their already solid majority should be euphoric, right?

Not necessarily.

To be sure it's great to have snagged this prize. Owens is solid, smart, and a hard worker; I've been impressed with his understanding of and support for environmental values and energy. He will be a contributor from the moment he is sworn in. He will represent the interests of a very moderate district. As such, he is likely to add to the complicated mix of moving legislation through the House. Democrats have experience dealing with a large tent so it is merely that, a complication.

He’s also going to be locked into a brutal reelection campaign that has already started. He will have a great big target on his back and a difficult district to defend. Owens will claim attention and resources from all the rest of us. We are, of course, glad to have him and to help.

Many Republicans are celebrating, despite the loss. The hard right, teabag, tin foil hat crowd are convinced that they won. After all, they were able to drive an established, respected, moderate Republican from the race (as she withdrew 72 hours before the election). They were able to take their candidate with, to be charitable, very modest credentials (who didn't even live in the district!) and bring him to the brink of winning a seat in Congress. The Republican base is exultant because they were able to drown out an occasional voice of reason and moderation (like Newt Gingrich, warning of the perils of becoming a party of angry, white men with limited educations). The “tea-party wing” whipped the party leaders in shape. To give Sarah Palin her due, she jumped at the opportunity to help lead the pack, but was soon followed by a stampede of Republican presidential wannabes and Republican office-holders who are convinced the reason they're no longer in the majority is that they weren't hard edged enough.

This will be trumpeted as a victory for the hard-liners; it will motivate Dick Armey and the Club for Growth to consider supporting more independents and true believers in primaries. Times cry out for civilized discussion and cooperation to deal with unprecedented problems, but Republicans will instead feel validated, indeed, obligated, to pursue the harsh, divisive tactics so disconcerting to watch these recent months.

The sharp right turn will energize their base and encourage a particular type of candidate likely to drive away thoughtful and independent people regardless of where they fall on the ideological scale. Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater could no longer win Republican primaries in the home states that they served so long and well.

The subtext of the raucous debate is that Republicans with their furious assaults are gaining no traction against Democrats. They have the lowest approval rating seen in decades. If they are successful in derailing healthcare, more Americans are going to blame them than blame Obama or Pelosi, if the Independents are to be believed.

As a result of Tuesday's election, a sad escalation of instability, unrealistic expectations and hard edged politics is likely. While this actually bodes well for Democrats in 2010 and 2012 as Republicans continue their headlong rush to embrace the most extreme and divisive elements, the Democrats’ gain is actually the country's loss. The only way we will successfully deal with our challenges of health care, education, the economy and fiscal situation, and our crumbling infrastructure is when we can have a rational conversation between the American people and their government. The fallout from the campaign in New York’s 23rd District likely made that conversation harder than ever.


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