You can’t keep the People’s Seat without the people

Politico points to dismal results for Republicans in Massachusetts as a good indication that Scott Brown might not be a Senator much longer.  But a post by NRO’s Jim Geraghty recounting some intelligence from New England indicates that it may be more than the Bay State’s penchant for Democrats at play.

Geraghty’s source talks about the unified effort that Democrats and their organized labor allies made in contacting nearly a million voters to stave off another Brown-esque upset.  But the phenomenon is not exclusive to Massachusetts.  For example, in Nevada, Washington, and Colorado Democrats defended vulnerable Senate seats by outperforming opinion polls that showed either a tie or a Republican advantage.

When Brown won his election, it had much to do with enthused Republican activists (nationally as well as in Massachusetts) sensing an opportunity and paying lots of attention to the race by making phone calls or going door to door to recruit voters.  In past midterm elections, the the Republican 72-hour Task Force would do the necessary grunt work to get voters to the polls.  That effort was missing this year – and nothing takes it’s place in 2012, Brown may not be the only Republican Senator in trouble.

Same election, two messages

In the week of fallout since the most recent ground-shaking election day, Democrats and Republicans alike have been on the airwaves, trying to put it in context.  But have you looked at their postmortems side-by-side?

Marco Rubio owned the GOP message on election night:

But we know that tonight, the power in the United States House of Representatives will change hands. We know tonight that a growing number of Republicans will now serve in the Senate as well. And we make a grave mistake if we believe that tonight these results are somehow an embrace of the Republican Party.

What they are is a second chance. A second chance for Republicans to be what they said they were going to be not so long ago. You see, I learned early on in this campaign – in fact it’s what propelled me to enter it – that what this race was about was about the great future that lies ahead for our country, a future that Americans know is there for the taking. But it requires actions on our part.

The theme of the Majority That Lost Its Way has been a consistent message for Republicans since 2006 – in fact, less than a year into the Pelosi Era, Rep. Tom Feeney argued that a philosophically adrift GOP had squandered its power:

We lost the majority in 2006 because Republicans could no longer convince voters that we were the party of fiscal restraint and traditional values. Polls in the closing days of the last election showed that a majority of voters felt that Democrats were more trustworthy when it came to issues of spending, taxation and general economic development — that we could no longer be trusted to fight for the limited government and personal freedom that have always been cornerstones of our party’s beliefs.

Contrast that to the Democrats’ lines about “what it all meant” – including the President, who has been vocal in chalking up the Democrats’ failures to messaging strategy:

What I didn’t effectively, I think, drive home, is that we were taking these steps not because of some theory that we wanted to expand government. It was because we had an emergency situation and we wanted to make sure the economy didn’t go off a cliff. I think the Republicans were able to paint my governing philosophy as a classic, traditional, big government liberal. And that’s not something that the American people want.

The first obvious thing is that Republicans, even now, seem contrite for driving the car into the ditch when they held most of the keys from 2001-2007.  Since Democrats haven’t had the benefit of time – and still have the responsibility of governing – contrition may simply be a luxury they can’t afford at the moment.  Still, the difference in where each party lays blame for still-somewhat-recent losses is stark: Republicans blame themselves for not living up to the expectations of the people, Democrats blame the perception that they didn’t meet expectations.

Another underlying current worth noting in all of these quotes is that, despite apparent sea change in the election of 2008, America remains a nation that trends philosophically toward smaller government – with both parties trying to frame their arguments through that prism.

 

Krugman gets one right!

Paul Krugman doesn’t know much about economics, but he had a good column on political messaging today – specifically, the talking point that President Obama should have focused more on the economy in the first two years:

After all, are people who say that Mr. Obama should have focused on the economy saying that he should have pursued a bigger stimulus package? Are they saying that he should have taken a tougher line with the banks? If not, what are they saying? That he should have walked around with furrowed brow muttering, “I’m focused, I’m focused”?

Sure, Krugman predictably goes on to crow that his calls for bigger stimulus and economic recovery programs that spent more borrowed money and placed government fingers on the scales of economic markets, but at least he combines his criticism with an alternative.

In some ways, this is the same message Republicans are now trying to deliver, post-campaign – that it wasn’t a lack of focus or messaging that lost the recent mid-terms for the Democrats, but the content of the policies the Democrats championed for two years.

 

 

3 Reasons why the tea party movement won this week

The conventional wisdom is that Tuesday was a mixed bag for the tea party movement thanks to losses of tea party-backed candidates in Colorado, Nevada, Delaware, and Alaska.  Even outlets on the right feel like it was a disappointing showing.  Some moderate Republicans are grousing that tea party enthusiasm in Nevada and Delaware cost the Republicans Senate seats.

If your context is two weeks instead of two years, then that makes a lot of sense.  In fact, if think long-term both in the past and the future, tea partiers had much to be proud of on Tuesday.

1. The tea party movement gave grassroots activists a reason to be excited.

Remember the campaign of 2008, when cool, smooth Barack Obama trounced that doddering old fool John McCain?  Remember 70% approval ratings and mastery of all forms of media, even the ones you hadn’t heard of yet?  Remember Pepsi changing its logo to look more like Obama’s?

Obama wasn’t just a politician when he came into office, he was a pop culture phenomenon.  What’s more, the enthusiasm his campaign engendered had turned red states like Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia blue.  Meanwhile, and more important, as Obama spoke of health care and financial reform, Republicans could only play defense as the “party of ‘No.'”  The popular image was of a party bereft of ideas.

Would you sit in a cramped campaign office and make phone calls for that party?

As the tea party movement got underway, it gave conservative activists something productive to do – and the chance to rail against the President’s programs in well-organized displays of opposition that also built a solid political infrastructure.  The smart conservative groups – like FreedomWorks – jumped on the bandwagon right away, recognizing the value in an organic movement of politically passionate individuals and helping set them up to take meaningful action later.

2. Tea party rallies set the terms of the debate over Administration initiatives.

To understand how tea party activism changed the debate over health care, consider that the health care industry was lining up behind the Democrats.  If you were in the industry, the bill seemed inevitable and the smart move was to figure out how to get some federal money to wet your beak.

Tea partiers responded to the health care bill, the automobile industry bailouts, and economic recovery initiatives like TARP and the stimulus packages with a consistent small-government message. Republicans still burdened by the yolk of a surprisingly big-government Bush Administration could not initiate this message, but they sure could respond to it.

This week’s election was framed by a philosophical debate over the role of government.  That had a lot to do with the fact that, for all the jokes about misspelled signs, the tea party movement had a pretty consistent message.

3.  The 2010 primary season was a wake up call to 2012 Republican candidates.

Mike Castle should have been able to beat Christine O’Donnell the way the hare should have been able to beat the tortoise.  So it’s tough to say that an easy primary would have resulted in a cakewalk to November victory.  Ditto for the established Nevada Republicans running against Harry Reid, who found themselves on the sideline after Sharron Angle’s upset.  It is tempting to play “shoulda woulda coulda” with the primary results, but the fact is that these primary losers chose not to engage an excited base of conservative activists for fear of not appearing moderate enough to win a general election.  They chose poorly.

Meanwhile, John McCain recognized the early threat of a challenger, acted like his primary was an election and not a coronation, and is still a Senator.  In winning re-election, McCain demonstrated that tea partiers aren’t out for blood, but they do want elected officials who are responsive to the folks they represent.  And any incumbent or favored Republican for a 2012 office now can get a nice head start.

If Virginia’s George Allen wants a rematch with Jim Webb in 2012, he will have to understand he has work to do among Virginia conservatives.  Long-time GOP incumbents like Olympia Snowe, Orrin Hatch, and Richard Lugar – and even first-time incumbents like Bob Corker – now have a year and a half to start making nice with their respective bases.  There may still be messy primary battles, but the so-called “better candidates” who could deliver general election victories will be ready for them.

Incidentally, a big bonus win, this splash of cold water does not include Sharron Angle or Christine O’Donnell actually winning races and being Senators – which might have been distracting and damaging to ongoing GOP efforts.  Those two darlings of media ridicule are gone now

The tea party movement is in fact a political movement and not a political party.  Because of that, tea partiers have the luxury of having their effectiveness judged over multiple election cycles.  To use an example on the other side, one might have said after the 2004 election that the online left “netroots” were a failure – Howard Dean didn’t win any primaries, and they didn’t knock off President Bush in a tight election that was winnable for John Kerry.  But in a parallel to the 2010 Alaska race, they defeated Joe Lieberman in a Democratic primary in 2006 and formed the base of an impressive grassroots effort for Obama in 2008.  Similarly, the real measure of the tea party movement – as either a one-cycle phenomenon or a long-term grassroots movement – will be clearer in 2012.

A Purple Congress: The best of all possible outcomes

Last night’s results – a historic wave of pickups in the House along with key gains that did not achieve a majority in the Senate – is the best possible playing field for Republicans nationally.

The reality of the Senate results is that the electoral map was bad for the Republicans in 2010 – but in 2012, counting independent seats in Vermont and Connecticut, Democrats are defending 23 of 33 seats up for re-election, with only one or two Republican seats obvious pickup opportunities.  (Plus, the Tea Party successes of 2010 should serve as a cautionary tale to incumbents like Orrin Hatch, who might not make the same mistakes that candidates like Mike Castle did.)

The Republicans did, however, scored a convincing win, and now control a legislative body – an important factor in a nation that buys as many Yankees, Cowboys, and Lakers hats as America does.

That means that Republicans can be proactive legislatively, and articulate a vision for the nation. And it also means that vision will run into a legislative buzz saw, because the Democrats control the other half of Congress and the veto pen.  In that fog of sawdust, who becomes the “Party of ‘No'”?

The GOP is in the enviable position of being, to paraphrase Reggie Jackson, the underdog and the overdog at the same time.

Of course, this means putting forward policies, and as the Democrats discovered, once you put something on paper it becomes a target.  And two years is, apparently, an eternity in politics.  But if Republicans can position themselves as the active minority party, their chances in the Presidential and Senate elections in 2012 will greatly improve.

I’m not a witch who hates puppies

Elections are the talk of the internets today; but since it’s too late for new messages and polls haven’t closed yet, everything before about 8:00 p.m. EDT tonight is really just mindless chatter.

Water cooler talk this morning seems to center around the Republican chances for taking the Senate, and that inevitably turns to the campaign of Christine O’Donnell in Delaware – and you really can’t have that discussion without talking about the now-famous “I’m not a witch” ad:

Despite the criticism and ridicule O’Donnell received for this ad, the message was pretty appropriate.  With national Democrats and media outlets lambasting her past television appearances and outspoken commentary on morality issues, O’Donnell was in danger of being defined by the environment not only as an extreme candidate, but as a truly bizarre person.  So she targeted the infamous clip that was circulating where she talks about her dalliances with witchcraft and tried to shift focus on the “real issues” of the campaign.

The problem wasn’t in this message, but in her very serious, isn’t-this-election-just-the-most-important-thing-in-human-history tone.  Michael Steele did a pretty good job of this in his 2006 bid for a Maryland Senate seat:

The line from Steele’s ad that had everyone talking?  “By the way, I love puppies.”  It’s silly, but positive (and certainly not defensive, like “I’m not a witch”).  Steele went up to Delaware to help O’Donnell campaign, but maybe he should have had a discussion about diffusing negative ads.

 

IT’S A TRAP: NBC/WSJ poll says GOP is in trouble

The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll – the one that showed the Republicans with big edges in preference among likely voters – is a warning flag for the GOP.  (Of note, it was NBC’s Today show, thanks to Chuck Todd, who hit on this issue this morning.  As much as I’ve bashed them, you have to give credit where credit is due.)

Most media outlets are pointing out the big advantages Republicans enjoy.  Voters are saying they would prefer Republicans in charge of Congress, they don’t much care for Nancy Pelosi, and they don’t buy the argument that the incoming class would hearken back to the days of Dubya.  But buried in most of the coverage is a potential looming problem: differences in opinion among voters about what their votes mean.

Check out the bottom of page 12 of the poll results.  Republicans and self-identified Tea Partiers are thinking about this election as a chance to reign in the federal government to its constitutionally defined boundaries; independents are more concerned with jobs and the economy.  The Ackbarian trap here lies in how Republicans craft their messages once the business of campaigning turns into the business of governing.

Those two items – sticking to the Constitution and helping the economy – are not mutually exclusive, but the response to this question does indicate a differing value system.  The easy strategy is to pay attention to which audience is receiving certain communications and tailor messages accordingly; as is often the case, the easy strategy is not the best.

The simple fact is that basing policy solely on a 225-year-old piece of paper doesn’t do anything to translate to an independent voter how that policy will help him or her or the country as a whole.  Frankly, the argument sounds like a crutch.  (“Look, it would be nice to give everyone, but this document – which actually said buying people like you would buy cattle was ok until 1808 – says we can’t do it.  Sorry!”)  However, despite the media intimations to the contrary, the idea that our government has gone well beyond the limits that were set out for it – and that doing so has actually caused more problems than it has solved – is quite an intellectual conclusion, and suggests that these are pretty savvy political observers.  These activists will support Constitutional policies without someone spelling out why those policies are constitutional.

Unfortunately, politicians seem to have trouble understanding that keeping a base engaged need not be pandering, and engaging the political center needn’t involve moderating one’s beliefs.  Through that cynical view, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll seems to forecast Republican political gains tomorrow followed by confusion on messaging over policy priorities in 2011.  (That also cuts out an interesting role for tea party activists as the conscience of the Republican party.)

To sell their economic policies on November 3 and beyond, the GOP will have to get smart on talking to the center from the right.  That they have been able to do so successfully in the past year speaks to their probable success in 2010; how well they do so in the next year will decide their success in 2012.