by Ken Feltman
What a word is truth: Slippery, tricky, unreliable.
– Lillian Hellman
Earlier this week, the Democrats lost a Brooklyn-and-Queens-based Congressional seat that had been in Democratic hands since 1923. The seat was held by Anthony Weiner until he resigned in a sexting scandal that makes one wonder: Why did they ever put cameras in cell phones?
Surely, they had an inkling that ego-driven elected officials and not-quite-secure teenagers could use the cameras to take “unfortunate” pictures of themselves. Then they might use the built-in email capability to send their pictures to “friends” and probably all around the world till – sooner or later – they arrived at a local news outlet.
Do it because you can or because it will help?
Or did the cell phone manufacturers load cameras and other features into a phone simply because they could, regardless of consequences for phone users? Because the brash Weiner lacked common sense and got driven from office, New York’s ninth congressional district had to hold a special election to replace him. That election is being heralded by many Republicans as the bellwether signaling the end for the Obama administration and by many Democrats as just one inconsequential House district.
Which is it? Based on political history, NY9 is probably somewhere between the extremes – and that is bad news for Obama and other Democrats. There was no reason for a Democrat to lose that seat. But he did.
Elections are not held in a vacuum. Whatever is happening nationally washes into local elections. Local politics affects national elections. Period. The questions is, how much? With one issue in NY9 – Israel – the answer is quite a bit.
Was Israel the issue or was it something more?
The Democratic candidate might have explained away any one or two issues, even an issue as powerful as Obama’s perceived lack of support for Israel, except for an overall impression, a mood that is developing. That mood in NY9 seems to be based on the impression that Obama has no answers for problems and is resorting to political attacks, including more speeches where he criticizes the Republicans. Voters have heard the speeches. They have tired of speeches, no matter how well delivered. They want action or that mood may become a powerful negative force dogging Democrats in 2012.
Today, because of the intensely partisan split in Washington, House elections should have a stronger correlation with support for the president than in less contentious times. Also mattering are the quality of the candidates, endorsements, the creativity of the campaigns in getting their messages out, the demographics of the area and issues of special importance to the particular district. NY9 had an abundance of those special factors, most favoring the Republican. But the Democrats were confident that they would hold on as they had for years and years.
The Democratic candidate was expected to overcome defections over Israel. In fact, he criticized Obama’s stance toward Israel. But many Jewish voters in the district were not satisfied. They held to their impression that Obama’s support for Israel left a lot to be desired. Has Obama inadvertently uncoupled reflexive support by Jewish voters for Democrats – even when those Democrats are not all that supportive of the issues of most importance to those Jewish voters?
Still 2010 for Democrats?
After the election, Democratic leaders and consultants rushed to television and radio outlets, to bloggers and print media, to tell everyone why NY9 is different. They were everywhere with rationale and excuses. But the cold numbers tell a more conventional story.
Nate Silver, who writes the amazingly accurate “Political Calculus” blog for the New York Times, said, “Still, even if those issues played a role, even if they swung the result, the Democrat would likely have performed better had the national environment been stronger for his party. And when paired with the results in Nevada’s Second Congressional District, where the Democrat was blown out on Tuesday, the special election scorecard is starting to look pretty ominous for Democrats.”
“In other words, the four House special elections (held since May 2011), taken as a whole, suggest that Democrats may still be locked in a 2010-type political environment,” Silver suggests, adding that the “Democrats might not lose many more seats in the House if that were the case, since most of their vulnerable targets have already been picked off, but it would limit their potential for any gains. And it could produce dire results for the Democrats in the U.S. Senate, where they have twice as many seats up for reelection.”
Meanwhile, back at the White House
So what are they doing at the White House to improve the president’s standing and help other Democratic candidates? Last weekend, White House political operatives were gloating that they had outsmarted the Republicans once again. The president addressed a joint session of Congress last week to demand passage of his jobs bill. But the bill had not been written yet. The media did not seem to notice or care and the political team got a lot of chuckles over that.
The White House political folks have it all figured out. The jobs bill calls for 1.9 million new jobs. If the bill passes and those jobs show up by November of next year, Obama will be reelected, they believe. If a compromise passes, with Obama standing firm until he has to yield – as he did with the debt ceiling – then Obama wins because he can blame the GOP for any shortcomings in the number of jobs created but take credit for anything positive, whether related to the bill or not.
The White House folks believe that the safest path to retention of their own jobs, and Obama’s job, too, is for the bill to fail. Cynically, these political mavens believe that they can all live happily ever after if the jobs bill goes down in flames after a battle that gives the president plenty of opportunities to blast heartless Republicans. They hope for a struggle that ends with Republicans voting against new taxes on the “wealthy.”
Is this where hope and change has led? White House staff members hoping that the bill just sent to Capitol Hill does not pass? Political staff members taking their chances on a political victory rather than working hard for a legislative solution that might actually create some real jobs for real people?
There will be more elections like the one in NY9. The losing party will be able to explain that local concerns caused a minor bump in the road. There will be endless reasons. But the trend is getting harder and harder to ignore. Watch for Democrats with their names on the ballot next year to begin to put some distance between themselves and their president.