Thursday, September 15, 2011

The 9th District

Tuesday's special election in New York's 9th District (to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Anthony Weiner) has been a bonanza for political pundits and analysts attempting to read the tea leaves of 2011 to predict 2012. Political prognostication is risky business, as anyone knows who remembers, for example, the 2008 presidential election that was supposed to pit Hillary Clinton against Rudy Giuliani. The evident lure of predicting the future, however, seems generally to outweigh the risks. (The real risks, let it be noted, are not to the reputations of the pundits and analysts who, like meteorologists, manage to sail from erroneous prediction to erroneous prediction with their reputations largely intact. The real risk is the damage done to our political system from the artificial effects such problematic predictions have on the actual process by which we choose our presidents).

The popular aphorism that "all politics is local" applies universally - except when it doesn't. Undoubtedly, there were genuinely "local" factors influencing Tuesday's outcome. Much has been made, for example, of the alleged weakenss of the Democratic candidate and his campaign. Not being on the scene myself and not having much followed the campaign I really can't comment on that, except to recall that a similar excuse was invoked in Massachusetts after Republican Scott Brown defeated the Democratic candidate for the late Ted Kennedy's vacant seat. On the other hand, there may be something to that argument - especially in this case where the candidate had to be someone already resigned to the fact that he would probably be redistricted out of office at the end of his term. The line between a reason and an excuse is inevitably a fine one, however.

There is another political aphorism that also applies universally - except when it doesn't. "It's the economy, stupid." Voter discontent with the state of the economy is widely alleged to be President Obama's Achilles' Heel as he approaches 2012, and Tuesday's outcome cannot but add to the Democrats' anxiety in this regard. That anxiety must be especially acute given the utter irrationality of the diffuse anger about the economy and the vitrual inability of the President to accomplish any major improvement in the economic climate between now and next year's election. Even were the Republicans to cooperate and pass the legislation the Preident has proposed, the short-term benefits might still be meager. The President can, of course, be faulted for his Administration's apparent indifference to unemployment earlier on - some of which might be blamed on the elite character of the President and his economic team, which perhaps caused them to react too slowly and with insufficient energy to the economic concerns of so many ordinary Americans. Even so, it can only be the height of irrationality to punish President Obama for that by voting for an opposition party whose priorities and likely policies would make the the lives of ordinary Americans even more precarious. Since I am quoting aphorisms today, I'd say protesting the bad economy by voting Republican would have to count as a classic case of "cutting off one's nose to spite one's face."

But, then, "it's the economy, stupid" only except when it isn't. There are other things people care about. And one thing a lot of people in the 9th District do care about is the security of Israel. Unlike the case with the economy, using one's vote in a congressional race to send the President a message about his misguided approach to the Middle East might be very rational. For one thing (again unlike the case of the economy) there are things the President actually has it within his power to do to support Israel in the coming U.N. session - e.g., the U.S. can veto in the Security Council any resolution acknowledging a purported Palestinian statehood, and can counteract whatever support the General Assembly may give by strongly supporting Israel in punitive measures against its Palestinian enemies. The veto, at least, would be likely in any case. But elections do have a way of focusing politicians' on what people care about, and so this otherwise irrational 9th District outcome might serve at least one very rational goal of steering the Administration from what seems to be its problematic default position in matters Middle Eastern.

A lot can - and will - happen between now and the 2012 election. The 9th District may - or may not - be a harbinger of things to come. Time will tell. Meanwhile, there are lessons to be learned; and blaming the outcome on a weak candidate or uniquely local factors should not be one of them.

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