03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ideologues and Election Results

On the evening of November 3, I watched MSNBC, seeking information about why the Commonwealth of Virginia, which Barack Obama had carried with 52.7 percent of the vote in 2008, and which had elected two Democratic governors and two Democratic senators in the last eight years, had just given 59 percent of its gubernatorial vote to Bob McDonnell, a graduate of the Regent University School of Law, and a man with long standing ties to the hard right. Jane Hamsher, the fiery liberal blogger, interviewed by Rachel Maddow, had an answer: Creigh Deeds, the Democratic candidate, had not run a sufficiently left wing campaign. Deeds, it appears, had let down the Democratic party "base" by waffling on a "robust" public health care option and committing other sins against liberal orthodoxy, causing liberals to become discouraged and abstain from participation, thus handing the election to McDonnell.

Markos Moulitsas (founder of the "Daily Kos"), perhaps the most influential Democratic blogger, pronounced a similar verdict that night on the defeats of both Deeds and Governor Jon Corzine of New Jersey. He wrote:

"If you abandon Democratic principles in a bid for unnecessary bipartisanship, you will lose votes. If you forget why you were elected - health care, financial services, energy policy and immigration reform - you will lose votes."

Frank Rich, in his November 8 New York Times column, attributed Corzine's defeat to populist revulsion against the excesses of Wall Street, which Corzine, a former Goldman Sachs executive, was presumed to typify. Those reactions are typical of most on the left, who consider the Democratic defeats to be the result of failures to live up to "progressive" principles.

But is this correct? Did Deeds and Corzine lose because of liberal disaffection or left wing populist anger? Should the Democrats now intensify their left wing commitments to achieve electoral success next year? Even a cursory review of the election returns casts doubt on those assumptions. To be sure, both Deeds and Corzine got fewer votes from liberal and minority voters than Obama did, while still winning such voters. But they lost their elections among Republicans and, more importantly, conservative leaning independents. In 2008, on his way to winning Virginia, Obama won the populous Northern Virginia suburban counties by the following percentages: Arlington, 72%; Fairfax: 60%; Loudoun: 54%; and Prince William: 58%. His margins there made up for his deficits in most of the rest of the state. Deeds held strongly liberal Arlington County with 66%, but lost the other three, gaining only 47%, 39%, and 42% of the vote in Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William Counties respectively, making his position hopeless.

The story was similar in New Jersey. In 2008, Obama won 56% of the vote in the state, by piling up big margins in Democratic strongholds like Hudson, Essex, and Union counties and either winning or holding down McCain's margins in northern New Jersey suburban counties. Obama's percentages, for example, in suburban Bergen, Hunterdon, Somerset, and Monmouth counties were 54%, 43%, 52% and 48% respectively. Corzine's percentages those counties in losing to Chris Christie were 48%, 25%, 39% and 31%. They explain why he is now contemplating his next career.

McDonnell and Christie voters in those suburban counties, including those who may have voted for Obama in 2008, are not disaffected readers of or The Nation. They are white Republicans and independents, who have suddenly shifted back to an anti-liberal position after recent election cycles dominated by hostility to George W. Bush.

But, for whatever reason, committed liberals often cannot or will not acknowledge this political development. Rich, for example, might ask himself whether voters in upper class Hunterdon County (66 percent for Christie) are actually more likely to be hostile to Wall Street bonuses than voters in working class Hudson County (67 percent for Corzine). Unlikely. The real question is why most voters in New Jersey and Virginia turned against the left, even as unemployment in the nation has crossed the 10 percent barrier. My own view is that Virginia and New Jersey McDonnell and Christie voters actually do not support increased financial regulation and new "jobs, " infrastructure or other spending programs on the scale contemplated by the Obama Administration for next year and/or worry about their costs in light of our current $1.4 trillion deficit and $12 trillion national debt. Of course that is subject to debate, based on polling and other evidence.

But liberal critics of Deeds and Corzine seldom consider who in these elections actually voted against the Democratic Party or why. Instead, they confidently assert that the results had nothing to do with President Obama or the Democratic Congress, except to the extent it has not been sufficiently liberal on health care or other subjects. Or, after the fact, they scorn the personal deficiencies of Democratic candidates or criticize errors in their campaigns, as if the Republican candidates were free of personal flaws and Republican operatives have suddenly become masterful at running campaigns (The Washington papers, for example, were full of praise in the immediate aftermath of the election for McDonnell's allegedly "brilliant" campaign). I would suggest that the reason for this willful blindness is that many liberals cannot, for whatever reason, contemplate the idea that voters have actually considered and rejected their ideas.

In theory, there is no reason why one cannot be a staunch liberal but understand that one's side does not always win elections, in part owing to the stubborn conservatism of large parts of the American electorate. Dick Tuck, the once famed political "prankster," ran for the California Senate in 1966. After losing, he gave the best concession speech in American political history, namely, "The voters have spoken - the bastards." This, however, is not a spirit which commends itself to most liberal activists.

This is not a new problem. After every presidential election since 1980 which Democrats have lost, I have read articles decrying the failure of Carter/Mondale/Dukakis/Gore/Kerry to run as a true liberal (aka "progressive"), or criticizing their personal failings, foolish advisors, and/or tactical failures. That the voters in a given election simply preferred the more conservative alternative has never even been a possibility to be considered. Instead, such post election analyses have usually featured an apocryphal quotation from Harry Truman to the effect that voters will always prefer a real to a fake Republican, without bothering to demonstrate that voters will always prefer a real Democrat to a real Republican.

Of course, liberals are not alone in those delusions. They have their mirror image opposites on the right, who believe that, like them, the voters are eternally hoping for what Barry Goldwater called "a choice, not an echo." And those feelings are now intensified by the right wing cult of St. Ronald Reagan, a messianic figure who actually walked among us in recent history. Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2008, for example, were damned for their deviations from the true Reaganite faith, which, of course, somehow explained their losses to people who were to the left of them. And, at present, there is an incipient civil war within the GOP, to be waged by militant conservatives who believe they speak for an inchoate but betrayed national majority.

The beliefs and tactics of this faction were on display this autumn in the 23rd Congressional District of New York and the results of that special election would be a cautionary tale, if the ideologues involved were capable of being cautioned. The battle involved a congressional district which had been held by the GOP in roughly its current form since 1871. The district's Republican county leaders chose a candidate deemed acceptable to the local electorate, which is largely Republican, but not in love with the southern inflected, culturally conservative Republican Party which controlled Congress and the Presidency until the 2006 and 2008 elections. However, the national "tea bag" movement deemed the Republican candidate, Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, to be unacceptable and launched an all out campaign on behalf of the Conservative Party candidate, Doug Hoffman, ultimately forcing Scozzafava out of the race. The result? In 2008, the Democratic candidate for that seat had only managed 34.7% of the vote against Republican Congressman John McHugh, in a good year for Democrats nationwide. However, in 2009, despite the anti-Democratic tide elsewhere in the country, the Democratic Congressional candidate, Bill Owens, won the seat with 47% of the vote, thus reducing the number of Republicans in New York's Congressional delegation to two.

Were the conservatives discouraged? On the contrary, most thought they had just run out of time and will prevail in the next round. And former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, one of the leaders of the national effort for Hoffman, of course took the opportunity immediately after the election to blame Hoffman for the loss, charging him with insufficient knowledge of local affairs in Watertown and Plattsburgh. Armey never considered the possibility that his characteristically heavy handed intervention into the affairs of New York's North Country and that of other out of state conservatives, may have generated local resentment, and thus helped to cost their party a seat in Congress.

Considered objectively, the 2009 election and subsequent political developments reveal two conflicting tendencies in US politics. The first is an anti-liberal, anti-Democratic trend among white voters in suburbs and exurbs in most of the country, which has come into existence in the past year, in sharp contrast to 2008. The second is a continuing antipathy toward the Republican Party among liberal voters and in certain parts of the country, including New England, New York, California, and the Pacific Northwest. For example, it was too infrequently noted in post election reports this year that Democrat John Garamendi had easily held a congressional seat in the San Francisco Bay area. Also, anti-tax initiatives failed in Maine and Washington State. Those conflicting tendencies will continue into next year and their tectonic interaction will likely determine the results of the off year congressional election in 2010.

For Democrats who value their Congressional majority, the November 2009 results might suggest a need for caution in pursuing major new liberal initiatives, such as the cap and trade legislation (assuming that some form of the health care bill is finally enacted next year) until the deficit is brought down and the economy becomes more stable, a feeling reflected by the 39 Democratic House members, mostly from red state suburban districts, who voted against the House health care bill. If the Virginia and New Jersey results actually do reflect an anti-liberal trend, an unflinching pursuit of all of Obama's original objectives in 2010 may well produce another 1994 next year, contrary to the dismissive words of left bloggers, who stress the differences between now and then, never a difficult task.

For Republicans, this might mean that it is perhaps unwise, if they wish to be competitive again in say, Connecticut and New York, to foreground Michele Bachmann, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh quite so much, since centrist voters rightly regard them as extremists. And they might consider allowing local Republican parties to nominate electable candidates in states which remain favorable to Obama. But the type of "Clintonian" centrist politics suggested by these reflections is now viewed as deeply unprincipled by the leaders of both parties, not to speak of the angry blogosphere, all of whom again want their parties to provide a choice, and not an echo. Thus, we appear to be headed for an ideological election next year, with an uncertain result. But whoever loses it, the ideologues of both parties will know whose fault it was, and it won't be theirs.