Last night, a Republican candidate without a political background won an upset in New York’s 9th Congressional District–which is in the middle of Queens. He defeated a popular Democratic State legislator after the latter linked him–plausibly–to the Tea Party, which polls rather badly with the general public and has little support in cities. This was the district represented by Congressman Anthony Weiner, who resigned earlier this summer when it was revealed that he repeatedly presented lewd comments and photographs to women he met online (and then lied about it). It was Conservative-ish by Queens standards, with a relatively large concentration of white Democrats and Orthodox Jews, but with the exception of Staten Island as a rule no Congressional District in New York City is Republican.
Some Republicans will try to cast this upset as a bellwether of Republican victories in all parts of the country in 2012; such claims are hyperbole, resting on either faulty memory or partisan cant. Seats vacated owing to scandal change hands reliably during the special elections that follow, which are often low-turnout affairs wherein the incumbent party often has difficulty turning out the base due either to demoralization or the cognitive dissonance produced by the very fact of the special election. If there is any doubt about this, consider the 2006 midterm Congressional Elections, in which Democrat Nick Lampson won Texas’ 22nd Congressional District–which had been Tom DeLay’s until he faced charges for illicit diversion of campaign funds; consider also the loss of Ted Stevens, at the time the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, to Democrat Mark Begich in 2008 following a campaign finance scandal of his own. Then there is this past May, when the most-Republican Congressional District in New York (the 26th) voted for a Democrat following Congressman Christopher Lee’s embarrassed resignation following a similar but even more-bizarre scandal than the one the toppled Congressman Weiner. (Congressman Lampson lost his very-Republican district in the next election to the current Congressman, Republican Pete Olson; Begich is still in his 1st term in a very Republican State.) The point is that losses in special elections follow a local logic.
In recent elections, it has sometimes appeared that these special elections in the shadow of scandal have augured wave elections favoring the opposition party; this theory would make more sense if a Democratic upset just prior to the summer hadn’t been followed by a Republican upset late in the summer. More-likely these low-turnout special elections follow their own uncomplicated if sometimes surprising logic. After the enormous Republican gains in the House of Representatives last year, there just aren’t many House seats they could appeal in in a general election. What the election of a Republican in New York’s 9th Congressional District does indicate is the depth of dissatisfaction towards President Obama.
A very large cross-section of the public has embraced the narrative that President Obama’s economic policies have failed. In the New York Times report on this election, many voters asked about their vote volunteered both that they were Democrats and that they voted as a referendum on President Obama’s handling of the economy. The fact that they have judged his economic policies are a failure and should be replaced doesn’t itself validate that this is so, of course, but the fact is that the 1.5 million–3.5 million jobs the Congressional Budget Office estimates were created or saved by the President’s 2009 Stimulus don’t come close to addressing the 14 million unemployed, 8.8 million underemployed, and the roughly-1 million discouraged job hunters the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in August. (The unemployment rate, stuck around 9.1%, would have to be halved and underemployment almost eliminated for us to return to a situation we consider “normal.”) The chances of President Obama’s latest stimulus plan passing through the Republican House are poor, unless he consents to Republican demands to make the stimulus deficit-neutral without raising taxes–meaning that it is paid for out of current Federal spending. If the President doesn’t accommodate Republican demands in this way, they have no real incentive to act on his plan. Most of the measures he has proposed, such as grants to States to maintain teachers’ jobs, about $50 billion in transportation spending, an extension of unemployment insurance and an extension of the payroll tax cut for employees, will save or create jobs intrinsically and help some small businesses by boosting consumption, but in aggregate there’s no reason to expect that this will reduce the unemployment rate or encourage investment sufficiently to foster a visible recovery over the next year.
Right now many typical constituents of the Democratic Party seem to be eager to go on the record that they don’t think the President has done enough to fix the economy. Last November, the Liberal Ironist argued that this failure to restore some modicum of confidence about our economic prospects was the reason the Republicans cleaned up both up and down the ballot in the 2010 midterm elections. Right now, I don’t believe the President has a path to mitigate this perception open to him. Some Liberal opinion-makers have argued the President should go for broke promoting a bold agenda in the Roosevelt tradition. I’d be receptive to such an initiative on principle, but I don’t think the independent voters that give the edge in a presidential election would be. Meanwhile, Democrats are coming forward and volunteering their belief that the President’s economic policies simply haven’t worked.
This week Republicans may be crowing that they’re going to be winning Congressional races in impossible places; this exultation is unjustified. They will, however, be making another strong claim that is justified.