The Election Message?
Virginia Representative Eric Cantor thinks he hears the message of Tuesday's elections, especially the ascension of Republican governors in New Jersey and Virginia, loud and clear: "voters... rejected out of hand the economic policies being pursued by the White House and Speaker Pelosi." Progressives should feel chastened and scale back their ambitions. A conservative renaissance is at hand in 2010.
I'm not so sure about that. But neither is it necessarily the case, as the White House claimed, that the elections were decided exclusively on "very local issues that didn't involve the President."
Instead, consider this simple hypothesis: times are tough. Voters need to see that elected leaders are doing something that actually makes things better. If they don't, they're liable to opt for a change.
This is a lesson that stretches through all levels of government and across party lines. Bear in mind the case of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, running on the Republican and Independence party lines. By now the facts are familiar: the mayor spent unprecedented billions of his personal fortune to be reelected by only a narrow margin. So why didn't he win more votes? Those who cast their ballots against Bloomberg overwhelmingly said that affordable housing was their top issue. Yet during the mayor's tenure, the city built a whopping 94,000 new units of affordable housing and preserved many more. And these voters didn't reject Bloomberg because his opponent offered a dazzling housing plan of his own - most of those who opted for the Democratic candidate said they were really casting a vote against Bloomberg. Rather, the issue is that 94,000 units, impressive as it sounds, are wholly inadequate to meet the housing crisis in New York City. The mayor's actions never measured up to the scope of the problem. As a result, voters concerned about housing overwhelmingly rejected the mayor.
This suggests that the election takeaway should be opposite of Cantor's message: Act boldly enough to actually alleviate the problems Americans are facing. Inadequate gestures in the right direction - a stimulus package that doesn't do enough to stimulate, allowing unemployment to grow; a housing program that leaves many unable to find an affordable home - only provide ammunition to your opponents and contribute to a sense of cynicism about government.
The elections should also help to refute another wrongheaded bit of conventional wisdom. A few weeks ago, political strategists were advising Democrats running for reelection to Congress in 2010 to follow Corzine's strategy and "win ugly" by attacking their opponents. Now that it didn't work out too well for Corzine, here's another suggestion: win through good policy that voters actually experience improving their lives.