Did off-year elections tell us much?

Nov 24, 2013 By Mark Shields

We've reached that point in the political post-mortems of election 2013 where as my wise and good friend, the late Arizona Rep. Morris K. "Mo" Udall used to say, "Everything has been said, but not everybody has said it." So here's my take on where things stand politically after Election Day 2013.

- How bad an autumn has this been for the Democratic White House? According to my friend Fallon, a notoriously unreliable source, the Kenyan government will announce early next week that, after exhaustive investigation, they have established beyond any doubt that Barack Obama was in fact born in Hawaii.

- The first rule of post-election analysis is this: If your side wins, then this constitutes proof positive that voters have endorsed the issues agenda and platform on which your winning candidate so courageously ran --- and a national trend in your party's direction has obviously emerged.

Take the case of the 2013 Virginia governor's race where Terry McAuliffe, a former national Democratic Party chairman and close friend of both Bill and Hillary Clinton, won a narrow victory over the Republican state attorney general and tea party favorite, Ken Cuccinelli.

For months, the Virginia airwaves had been flooded with attack ads. Some indicting McAuliffe as a fixer wheeler-dealer and others accusing Cuccinelli of everything it seemed, up to sticking bamboo shoots under the fingernails of women who used birth control.

But the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, Vermont's chief executive, Peter Shumlin, had an issues-oriented explanation for McAuliffe's win: Virginia voters preferred the Democrat because "Terry ran a campaign that focused on jobs, investments in education, infrastructure, and lifting up the middle class ..."

But what about deep blue New Jersey, which last voted for a GOP presidential candidate in 1988 and where the pro-life opponent of same-sex marriage, Republican incumbent Gov. Chris Christie (whose Democratic opponent was a veteran woman state senator) won the votes of 57 percent of the women, 51 percent of Latinos and 66 percent of independents?

This time, Vermont Gov. Shumlin detected no endorsement by the state's electorate of Chris Christie's performance or his positions: "The people of New Jersey focused on his (Christie's) oversized personality, and it was a referendum on his personality. They just did not focus on his record."

- The second rule of post-election analysis is that if your side loses, it was not because voters approved of the other side's policy and positions or, even heaven forfend, disapproved of your side's values or competence.

No, your loss was due to unique, local factors or a candidate's idiosyncrasies.

But Chris Christie won a lonely landslide. Democrats held on to their 24-16-seat majority in the New Jersey state Senate and lost just one seat in the state House, where they had held a 48-32 majority.

Thus, it can accurately be said that when it came to having political coattails, Gov. Christie was instead wearing a tank top -- which, even with his impressive weight loss, is probably not a good visual.

But the most important result of 2013 could be New York City, where Democrat Bill de Blasio dared to confront what national Democrats have deliberately downplayed: the metastasizing economic and income inequality, the mushrooming gap between the advantaged 1 percent and everybody else.

There is a growing sense in the country that the system is rigged in favor of the privileged few and against the great majority of Americans, that banks that were "too big to fail" five years ago are today even bigger and even more untouchable, that Wall Street-based, white-collar wrongdoing effectively has been decriminalized.

If these issues do catch on and move into the national blood stream, then election 2013 will have been historic. Stay tuned.


Editor's note: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields is a former Marine who appears regularly on "Newshour" on PBS.

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