Friday, November 10, 2006

The meaning of it all, Florida fun, and Mehlman's folly

I’m on fumes at the moment, a common condition at the end of an election week, compounded by an early morning deadline for a Sunday print column on how various ’08 Republican hopefuls can benefit from the ’06 Republican meltdown. So consider this a quick survey of the landscape today:

Not surprisingly, liberals are interpreting the midterm election results as a triumph for liberal principles, while conservatives see the results as a reaffirmation of conservative principles. That’s the fascinating thing about politics; there’s selective evidence for every conceivable position.

Paul Waldman, a liberal scholar and author based in Washington, argues today that, even the new Democratic congressional majority does include some freshmen conservatives from the South and the Midwest, “overall it is made up of candidates who held traditional Democratic positions….All of them support increasing the minimum wage, and all oppose privatizing Social Security. Nearly all support embryonic stem cell research. All except a few are pro-choice. And all of these positions enjoy majority support” from the American electorate.

True enough, as far as it goes. But if most of these Democratic candidates nationwide had loudly and repeatedly articulated much of what they truly believe – abortion rights, gay rights, gun control, speedy troop withdrawals from Iraq, cancellation of the Bush tax cuts at the high end of the income scale – I wonder whether they would have attained their majorities. It seems irrefutable that the center of gravity in American politics has edged a few ticks to the right since the era of Ronald Reagan.

Similarly, on the right we have columnist Charles Krauthammer, who says that the results Tuesday night merely underscored his view that America is basically a conservative country. He cites the passage of anti-gay marriage referenda in seven of the eight states that put it on the ballot. He cites the passage of an anti-affirmative action referendum in Michigan. He says that a lot of the House and Senate races this year were very close, and, most importantly, “a switch of just 1,424 votes in Montana would have kept the Senate Republican.”

But hang on: If that’s his criteria, then we could always reargue the 2000 presidential election. We could make the case that, if thousands of little old ladies in Palm Beach County hadn’t misread the butterfly ballot and voted for Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore, then the latter might still be president and Krauthammer’s conservative thesis would not appear to hold water.

Anyway, nobody ever really wins these arguments. Read them here and here, and decide for yourself.


Speaking of Florida: A great, albeit underreported, story is unfolding as you read this. It’s material grist for a short story writer. First, bring in Katherine Harris. She was the Florida election official who gained national fame (or infamy) for presiding over President Bush’s controversial 537-vote victory during the hanging chad affair. Her high profile later propelled her into Congress, representing the district that includes Sarasota County. This year she left her seat to run for the Senate (she got slaughtered on Tuesday), and that set the stage for a hot House race in Sarasota. So guess what happened in that House race:

The results are all in limbo. The Republican candidate leads the Democratic candidate by only 368 votes, pending a total recount…and an investigation into whether the new touch screen machines failed to record thousands of intended votes, most notably in a predominantly black and heavily Democratic neighborhood of Sarasota. As Governor Jeb Bush put it, the tallies in this district seem to be “an unusual anomaly.” Or, as the French might put it, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.


Ken Mehlman, the peripatetic Republican national chairman, is bowing out after six years on the job, having toiled with mostly great success as Karl Rove’s general contractor. But let it also be said that one of Mehlma’s signature initiatives – reaching out to the African-American community - ended in abject failure.

One of his big ideas was to promote the high-profile candidacies of black Republicans, as a symbol of the GOP’s desire to broaden its appeal. Indeed, there was considerable media hype about Ohio gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell, Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann, Maryland senatorial candidate Michael Steele, and eight black House candidates.

Every one of them lost.

White voters apparently didn’t believe that the presence of black Republican candidates was proof that the GOP had become a more tolerant party. And black voters somehow didn’t take the hint that they should favor a Republican just because the candidate shared their skin color.

Black votes were undoubtedly influenced by other factors, as well: the slow federal response to Katrina and the needless deaths of black New Orleans residents; the anecdotal and statistical Census evidence showing that the gap between black and white income has widened during the Bush years; the inescapable fact that big government (and federal government employment) has benefited the black workforce. And Mehlman certainly didn’t help his own case, when he defended a GOP campaign ad in Tennessee that resurrected Old South fears about black men consorting with white women.

In the end, the exit polls show that only 11 percent of blacks voted this year for Republican congressional candidates, the usual share. Nor will his successor do any better merely by running black candidates. Nothing short of a fundamental shift in the GOP’s governing credo will really work, but, as the exit polls also demonstrate, the party more than ever is rooted in the Old Confederacy (the only region that voted GOP this year). As the Republicans regroup, the last thing they'll want to do is risk their base. Black voters can expect nothing more than cosmetics for the foreseeable future.