25 January 2010

Everybody Just Slow Down and Take a Deep Breath

A Republican has won Ted Kennedy's Senate seat! And a breathless media is desperate to enlighten us as to what it means.

A commentator on NPR said this means the American public is telling Washington D.C. that they're not focusing on the right issues. Funny, I didn't realize the American public as a whole got to vote in Massachusetts elections.

Others are claiming it represents a big shift in Massachusetts politics. Of course four of the last five governors of Massachusetts have been Republicans,* so another Republican winning a state-wide race is in itself no more newsworthy than a dog-bites-man story.

The media and the political junkies who hang on their every word love to discern national meaning in single local elections. But as another famous Massachusetts pol, Tip O'Neill, once said, "All politics is local." The best bet on what this race meant is that people didn't like the Democratic candidate, Martha Coakley, much. Long before the election there were complaints about what a dreadful campaign she was running. At public appearances when she had a chance to interact directly with the public--such as at the inauguration of the mayor of Salem--she skipped out quickly rather than spend time with potential voters. And she famously mocked the eventual winner, Scott Brown, for standing in the cold at Fenway Park shaking hands. But any good campaign consultant knows that people like meeting the candidate, and they like seeing the candidate meeting the people. What mattered wasn't just how many people Scott Brown shook hands with at Fenway, but also the number of people across the state who saw, on television, that he was willing to do it.

In political scientist Richard Fenno's excellent book, The Making of a Senator: Dan Quayle, the reader learns how a dim bulb like Quayle managed to win his first House campaign, then unseat a very popular incumbent senator (the late Birch Bayh, father of current Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, who is universally acknowledged as being but a pale shadow of his father). In short, he frantically worked the district, then the state, driving all over and shaking hands everywhere. In Richard Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson, Means of Ascent (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 2), we see the same thing (that is, frantic traveling to as many little Texas burgs as possible put LBJ close enough to be able to successfully steal the 1948 Senate race).

There is but one, a solitary single, lesson to be learned from this Senate race, and it's not about national politics, public backlash against Obama or his healthcare plan, or the state of the economy. It's that campaigns matter--always have, always will. If you don't believe me, as Bob Dole, John Kerry, or John McCain--three men who could have been president if they hadn't run three of the most stunningly inept campaigns in history.

Yes, everyone will be taking this as proof the Democrats' star is fading, and yes the Democrats will lose seats in Congress this fall--the majority party nearly always does, so why should this year be any different? But each particular race will come down to local factors. For example, in my heavily conservative district, our freshman Republican congressman lost his re-election bid last year to a Democrat. Did the overall political climate, the dissatisfaction with Bush and the higher turnout among Obama supporters play a role? Sure. But what the national media never noticed was how unpopular the incumbent had become through many of his own actions. One of the major newspapers in the district ran a column calling his staff "20-something "Jesus Camp" counselors" who "aren't ready for prime-time." Yeah, that's local, and that was the reason that he wasn't one of the Republicans who managed to survive in a tough year for the party.

So keep this in mind. If the Democrats aren't total fools (a debatable assumption), they can see their weak races just as well as the Republicans, and they can put their efforts into trying to save them.

In other news that's giving the politerati hot flashes, Obama's approval rating is terribly low right now, only 50%. Republicans gloat about how the American public is turning against him. Combined with a Republican win in the Democratic stronghold of Massachusetts, this is a sure sign of Republican ascendancy, right? Well, Reagan's approval rating was basically identical--49% at this point in his first term. Of course he won a second term, and despite Iran-Contra and the natural inclinations of academics to dislike conservatives, he not only remains popular among the general public but his ratings have improved in recent years among the historians and political scientists who rate presidents.

Continuing the comparisons,** George W. Bush's approval rating in early September of 2001 was 3 percentage points lower than Barack Obama's in early September of 2009. Of course that changed with 9/11, and of course W. won re-election (against the predictions of all my Democratic friends, who just didn't think it could be possible--after all, they didn't know anyone who supported him).

So what should we make of all this? Nothing more than the media's ongoing desperation to spin gold out of straw for ratings. It's a business after all, so it's neither a surprise nor a shame that they behave as they do. But adult political observers should know better than to take them seriously.

If it seems like a long time since Obama's glorious march through Washington inauguration, just keep in mind that it's almost as long until this fall's elections, and much longer until the next presidential election.


*In fact the current governor is the first Democrat to hold the seat since Dukakis--anyone here old enough to remember him?--left office in 1991.
**USA Today has a great tool for comparing presidential approval ratings, from Truman to Obama.

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