Business Times - 05 Nov 2009
GOP wins a referendum on Obama?
The recent elections for governor in Virginia and New Jersey expose a deep political divide inside the Republican Party
By LEON HADAR
IT'S been a year since Barack Obama and the Democrats took control of the White House and Congress and the Republican Party was kicked out of power in the 2008 election. Many of the pundits celebrated those elections as 'historic' and 'transformative'.
They argued that its political significance went beyond the obvious - for the first time American voters decided to send an African-American to the White House, a choice that reflected a revolutionary change in American attitudes on race, an issue that has plagued the nation's political history, with the civil war between the Northern and slave-owning Southern states being the most dramatic example.
But against the backdrop of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s and the US involvement in two major wars (Iraq and Afghanistan), the 2008 elections were seen as a national referendum on the Republican party and its conservative ideology - a mix of free-market economics, traditional cultural values and muscular foreign policy - that had dominated American politics since the 1980 election of president Ronald Reagan.
From that perspective, the Democratic electoral victory last year was depicted as an end to an era and a shift to the political centre-left. The conservative agenda was bankrupted with Americans expressing their rejection of the kind of policies - the de-regulation of the financial markets, costly military interventions and militant religious activism - that led to economic ruin, foreign policy disasters and cultural divisions. Americans voted in support of a return to more progressive policies - a more activist government role in the economy, a more internationalist but less interventionist foreign policy and the rejection of a radical political-cultural course.
Moreover, the fact that the people elected as president a multicultural figure such as Barack Hussein Obama suggested that the nation was going through a social and demographic transformation in which the white-Christian majority that had dominated American politics since the birth of the republic was gradually losing its power as other groups, including African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans and others, were gaining more influence in Washington and around the country.
Indeed, in the aftermath of the 2008 elections the conventional wisdom was that the Republicans were becoming a minority party with its electoral base representing old white-Christian voters in the South and in rural areas and small towns. These people were committed to a reactionary right-wing and nationalist ideology who perceived Mr Obama and his more young, well-to-do, educated and cosmopolitan supporters in the large urban centres of the East and West Coasts as a threat to their interests and values.
In that context, the noisy and sometimes violent opposition to Mr Obama's policies - the stimulus package, the bailout of Wall Street and the healthcare reform plan - were portrayed by the media as a dramatic example of a political backlash by the paranoid 'teabaggers' (alleging, among other things, that Mr Obama was not born in the United States) worried that they were losing their power and becoming a marginal political force in America.
But this narrative is being challenged now as some analysts are suggesting that the opposition to Mr Obama's policies may have gone beyond a vanishing populist fringe represented by the 'teabaggers' and other noisy political and media players, ranging from former vice-presidential candidate and Alaska Governor Sara Palin to Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the right-wing radio talk-show hosts and bloggers.
According to the other narrative, Mr Obama and the Democrats have been misreading the results of the 2008 elections and pursuing policies that put them at odds with the rest of the country.
It's not surprising that this narrative under which the Obama Era would be coming to an end sooner than later is being promoted by Republican lawmakers and conservative pundits.
'We're back,' they say, arguing that the results of some of the local elections on Tuesday, including the Republican win in the races for governor in Virginia and New Jersey, should be seen as a reality check since the Age of Obama began, if not a referendum on the Obama presidency and the Democratic agenda.
But the Democrats, whose narrative continues to advance the notion that Mr Obama and the Democrats are alive and kicking, would point out that the party out of power traditionally makes gains in off-year (this year) and midterm elections (next year), so a few Republicans' electoral victories would have been expected and, in any case, they shouldn't be seen as referendums on Mr Obama and his policies but as a reflection of the unique realities of the local races.
If anything, the elections expose a deep political divide inside the Republican Party.
The outcome of the gubernatorial race in Virginia was clearly a piece of bad news for the Democrats. While Virginia has long been a conservative, former slave-owning Southern state, it seemed to be moving in the direction of the Democrats in recent years.
That change was a reflection of the transformation of Virginia from a largely rural, politically Southern and conservative state to a more urbanised, pluralistic and politically moderate area of the country, a trend that has clearly been evident in the northern part of the state that borders with Washington, DC.
Hence, Virginia's outgoing governor is a Democrat as are the two senators representing it in Washington. Virginia also voted for Democrat Obama in 2008, after backing Republican candidates in the previous 10 presidential elections.
These developments have led political analysts to conclude that Virginia should be considered now a 'bellwether' or 'swing' state, not unlike in Florida, Missouri and Nevada, where political tendencies tend to match in microcosm those of the entire nation.
So according to Republicans, the impressive victory in the gubernatorial race in Virginia of Republican Bob McDonnell over Democrat Creigh Deeds reflects a national trend of growing disenchantment with Mr Obama and the Democratic agenda and especially with its emphasis on the growing role of government in the economy.
Yet opinion polls also note that Mr Obama remains very popular among Virginia's voters, including among many of those who voted for the Republican McDonnell on Tuesday. In fact, as Democrats point out, Mr Deeds ran a lacklustre general election campaign, making a strategic decision to run away from Mr Obama during the campaign, while Mr McDonnell seemed to be a very attractive candidate who marketed himself as a pragmatic and centrist candidate and not as a disciple of Ms Palin.
In New Jersey, the defeated Democratic governor Jon Corzine had to deal with a political backlash in a state where both unemployment and state taxes are among the highest in the country. He also had the disadvantage of being a former Goldman Sachs CEO running in a year when many Americans are expressing their disgust with Wall Street investors.
At the same time, like in the race in Virginia, Republican candidate Chris Christie was running as a moderate candidate who supported much of what President Obama was doing.
The most interesting race took place in the special election in New York's 23rd Congressional District, which had been held by Republicans for 138 years but became vacant after Mr Obama asked the outgoing Republican representative to serve in his administration. But the Republicans, who selected the relatively moderate Dede Scozzafava as its candidate to run against Democrat Bill Owens, faced an open rebellion by many conservative Republicans who switched their support to the third candidate in the race, Doug Hoffman who was running on the Conservative Party ticket.
New York's 23rd Congressional District has become a symbol of the growing tensions between the members of the right-wing base of the Republican Party who contend that the party needs to maintain its ideological purity, even if that means alienating moderate voters, and the Republican Party's political establishment whose members want to expand the party's 'big tent' and to attract more centrist candidates and voters.
Hence, the conservative Hoffman has won the support of Ms Palin and other far-right Republican politicians who are preparing to run for the presidency in 2012 as well as of many conservative activists who ended up forcing Ms Scozzafava to withdraw from the race.
The outcome of the infighting in the Republican Party between the 'teabaggers' and the more pragmatic establishmentarians - some describe it as a Republican civil war - could determine the fate of the party as it prepares for the crucial midterm elections next year and later on for the 2012 presidential race.
The party's favourability rating remains very low and the internal strife could result in a major political crack, and a failure to refurbish the Republican brand name could make it more difficult for the opposition party to challenge Mr Obama and the Democrats in the long run.
But there are clearly some concerns in the White House and among Democrats that Republican gubernatorial wins in New Jersey and Virginia could slow down Mr Obama's political momentum as he continues to press Congress to approve his major policy initiatives, starting with the healthcare reform legislation that should come up for vote in the coming weeks.
But most observers believe that if Mr Obama succeeds in creating the foundations for a steady economic recovery and help reduce the unemployment figures, the Democratic President and his party will be able to extend the Obama Era for a very long time.
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