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.
games and elections, the outcome can differ from the actual result.
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?
having added a seat that had been in Republican hands since Abraham Lincoln was
president to their already solid majority should be euphoric, right?
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
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
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
23 District likely made that conversation harder than ever.