03 November 2009

Horse race politics is now a losing bet

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It's Melbourne Cup day in Australia: a day full of strained horse racing metaphors, lots of forced jollity, and much illusion about chance; hence the superficial inspiration for my segue to:

The interesting, refreshing and credible view now developing that "horse race" style politics is currently (if temporarily) on the outer in the big democratic conversation in the US. The argument runs along these lines:

The triumph for grass roots democracy seen in the presidential election of Obama last year, cuts both ways: to big central planning idealists like Obama, but also to small government idealists like Ron Paul.

This means that the previously dominant gamers and tacticians in politics (Karl Rove, Josh Lyman, Bill Clinton), who downplay substance and the ideas of candidates and who look primarily to the sport of political contests (the horse race metaphor), are now less important than they have been for ages.

Triangulating, seeking the middle ground between poles, which was the hall mark of Clintonian politics, is a process beloved of journalists and the media who seek to commentate on political contests without openly engaging with the merits of the ideas being fought over.

Obama's win was a win for a politician of ideas, however goofy (hope'n change anyone?). Grass roots conservative citizens have seen now that idea politicians can win. This has defused the logic and power of the once powerful political tacticians in the GOP, who would advocate non-confrontational moderates in contestable seats, because winning the idea debate wasn't the point, winning was the point.
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But in the current atmosphere in the US citizens want a debate about the ideas. The question seems to be: is more Government the answer? Enough electors are seeking authenticity from their representatives on this issue, that candidates who vacillate and triangulate and whose positions on such issues are suspected of being merely convenient, are losing. Hilary might even be characterised as having lost the Democratic presidential primary race for being identified as the smarter politician, but lacking authenticity.

The message of the current race for the New York House race for congressional district New York 23 seems to be the same. The old back room political wisdom that you need to find a compromise candidate who won't scare the horses if you are to win tight contests, is losing ground. Dede Scozzafava was a moderate Republican with a public profile as a former mayor of a town in the district. She was the "safe" moderate candidate for a New York district. Doug Hoffman was a boring accountant who nominated for the same vacant GOP seat, but was overlooked by the party grandees (there was no primary for procedural reasons) who nominated Scozzafava.

Apparently Glenn Beck on Fox TV and Rush Limbaugh on syndicated radio didn't think much of Scozzafava due to her "liberal" voting record, so they and other right of centre commentators publicly got behind the fiscally conservative climate sceptic, Hoffman. And what's happened so far?

Hoffman jumped out to a big lead in the polls early, with the Democrat, a Pelosi loyalist named Bill Owens, in second place with Scozzafava third. Next the GOP tacticians went to work on Scozzafava to prevent the conservative vote being spilt to let Owens through the middle. Over the weekend she did the seemingly honourable thing, and stood aside (that was big news), but then dropped an even bigger bombshell, she endorsed Owens, the Democrat. The GOP is not impressed. Boehner and Gingrich had put considerable weight behind her candidacy for the GOP and political donations of over $1 million had been put into her GOP campaign for the seat. She has thrown egg in their faces.

Now the question is, can a non-GOP "small government" candidate beat a Democrat on Tuesday in a New York State congressional district? The late polling suggests Hoffman has the "mo" to win.

This would be a serious blow to the O's political cred. If the current governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey also go to against the Democrat's (and even if they split), then the O's honeymoon is not just over, he could visibly be in the doghouse. This could permanently cripple his government run healthcare agenda and the carbon cap and trade legislation (Waxman Markey) would be doomed.

What it means for the GOP is even more interesting. The conventional wisdom in the press has been conspicuously wrong or confused on this to date. The press is a natural supporter of the horse race school of political commentary, which is a losing horse at the moment. They will interpret (spin) this development as a set back for the GOP, because it looks like the GOP is fragmenting. But the bigger picture is that there appears to be a real coalescing of conservative voter support for small government idealists. If the GOP can appropriately adapt to this by recognising the clear signals being given from voters, it could march back in spades in the mid-terms in 2010, and give Obama a real contest in 2012.

There are some minor echoes and repercussions for this in Australian politics (can Malcolm, the tactician, survive?), but the real casualty in the short term could be the Copenhagen Climate Conference in early December. If Nobel laureate Obama is now losing his political clout, then there is less likelihood that he would be prepared to risk what's left with a strong endorsement for really painful carbon reduction commitments in any accord coming out of Copenhagen. There are plenty of hints that the only real chance for meaningful commitments at Copenhagen would be if Obama appeared there in force, actively arm twisting other nations to accept steep carbon emmission reductions.

Is that likely?

UPDATE:

GOP has easily won the Virginia and New Jersey governor's races.

DEMs narrowly win the notionally conservative NY 23 rd congressional district, with the "moderate" GOP candidate (Deidre Scozzafava) finishing third after quitting the campaign and endorsing the DEM candidate over an independent conservative candidate, who finished a close second.

The lessons here seem to be:

For the DEMs: Obama's support can't save marginal Democrat candidates.

For the GOP: Conservative voters won't vote for non-conservative GOP candidates.

For Copenhagen Climate Conference: Obama unlikley to be able to deliver on US committments to deep carbon cuts.


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