Wednesday, November 3, 2021

This Off-Off-Year Election


Yesterday was Election Day. Here in New York City, we elected a new Mayor and City Council and approved various amendments to the New York State Constitution. Of course, as is usually the case in any one-party town, it is really the party primary that matters; and so, as expected, what we call the General Election just confirmed the expected outcome. To no one's surprise, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams sailed to an easy victory over a relatively ridiculous and insignificant Republican opposition.

Thanks to our over obsession with the presidency, we have long curiously referred to the "midterm" elections in even-numbered years - when the entire house, one-third of the Senate, and many state governors and state legislatures are on the ballot - as "off-year" elections. By that analogy, this year's elections can be called "off-off-year elections" (as in "off-off-Broadway"). Yet, however many times "off" they may be, their importance ought not to be discounted.

The back-and-forth character of American politics and the perennial paralysis that prevents prompt government action have historically turned these off- and off-off-year contests into opportunities for backlash against the party in power in Washington. I am old enough to remember, for example, the great Democratic landslide of 1964, followed by the Republican counter landslide in 1966. History does not predetermine, but it does illuminate recurrent patterns in American politics.

The race that got the most pre-election attention this year, of course, was the Virginia Gubernatorial race. Virginia, like New Jersey, makes a point of choosing its governors in the year after the presidential election. This frees those races from any presidential "coattail" effects but also gives them an outsize significance even beyond the borders of those states. 

And such was certainly the case this year with the decisive Republican victory in Virginia. Time and tranquility will inspire more profound analysis. My first, early-morning reflections suggest a few factors that should be highlighted.

First, on the Republican side, the candidate, Private Equity capitalist Glenn Youngkin, was more like a conventional Republican. He won the nomination. in a somewhat contrived "unassembled convention," rather than in a typical party primary. In a typical party primary, I suspect a more "Trump-like" figure would likely have won. But Youngkin, although he checked all the requisite Trump boxes, was not such a candidate and so was capable of winning back those - especially suburban women voters - who had been turned off by Trump in 2020, while still holding on to the enthusiastic Trump base. He highlights just how formidable such a conventional Republican candidate can be, but also how hard it would be to surface such candidates i ordinary Republican primaries.

On the Democratic side, Terry McAuliffe lost probably for several reasons. If voters are now always angry and all elections are now "change elections," perhaps a fresh face would have serve the Democrats better than a familiar former governor. In any case, he clearly failed to respond to the Republican candidate's effective emphasis on schools and education policy.  Of course, "critical race theory," as such, is not taught in elementary schools, but that vague label has come to reflect a more generalized cultural concern that McAuliffe failed to respond adequately to. This highlights a broader weakness at the heart of the contemporary Democratic party. It is evident that while Democrats often advocate for some very popular policies (e.g., health care, child tax-credits, etc.), voters increasingly vote on moral and cultural questions, which highlight the gap between the party's small (but very loud) white liberal, "woke,' progressive minority and the rest of the country. Thus, probably the turning point - certainly a turning point - in the campaign was when McAuliffe made his now famous, amazingly ridiculous comment that parents should not "be telling schools what they should teach."

It is also at least marginally possible that the very conspicuous failure of the Biden Administration and the Democrats in Congress to accomplish anything contributed to McAuliffe's defeat. Admittedly, that may have been inevitable, given the very small Democratic majority in Congress and the obstructionism of Senators Manchin and Sinema, but voters generally don't care about such things, especially when the party in power so extremely over-promise. All this highlights the general "backlash" pattern, exacerbated by the depressed Democratic enthusiasm (a perennial problem for a party overly obsessed with the presidency and with short-term symbolic victories rather than the long-term work of building party power at all levels of government).

It remains to be seen what other factors may have played a part, for example, increasing anxieties about inflation and generalized covid fatigue.  All in all, however, this may prove a salutary wake-up call for the Democrats as they head into the much more important midterm "off-year" election of 2022.

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