THE RICH LOWRY COLUMN
By Rich Lowry
On Nov. 3, the fairy tale died. The election results in Virginia and New Jersey dismantled the self-satisfied, just-so story that Democrats have been telling themselves about last year’s election.
The story goes like this: In 2008, Americans voted for change not just in the nation’s leadership, but in its fundamental political orientation. They wanted a shift to the left not seen since 1932. The nation’s political map had been utterly transformed. Barack Obama owned the suburbs and independents, and laid claim to formerly secure Republican states. An outdated GOP had been reduced to a rejectionist husk clinging to rural areas and the South.
A more modest rival interpretation explained it differently: A charming young man running against a Republican Party debilitated by its association with an unpopular war and a politically toxic incumbent won a solid 7-point victory nationally. He sounded reasonable and moderate and won for his party something important, if not necessarily epoch-making: a chance to govern after the other side had blown it.
The Republican sweep of the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey is flatly incompatible with the first, heroic interpretation. If things changed so fundamentally, they wouldn’t have snapped back so quickly.
Obama beat John McCain among independents in Virginia by 1 point, and in New Jersey by 4 points, while winning the suburbs. Both Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie took back the burbs and wiped out their Democratic opponents among independents by 2-1 margins.
Liberals are comforting themselves that McDonnell and Christie had to play to the center, as if that in itself is a stinging rebuke to the right. They seem to forget that they have long been arguing that conservative candidates can’t appeal to the middle. That the pro-life, anti-gay-marriage, limited-government conservatives McDonnell and Christie had more cachet with the center than their opponents should be a Democratic warning sign.
Of course, Obama wasn’t on the ballot, although that’s cold comfort for 2010. In New Jersey, the youth vote dropped off from 17 percent in 2008 to 9 percent of the electorate in 2009. In Virginia, the youth vote fell off by half. The infatuation of starry-eyed Obama kids apparently isn’t transferable.
Obama’s mistake is governing as if he has a heroic mandate when he really has a modest one. This is his mandate gap. It accounts for the paradox of his current political standing. His job approval is holding up around 50 percent, and people still like him, even as his rating on key issues — health care, the economy and the deficit — falters.
The mandate gap is a potential killer for Democrats not named Barack. Consider poor Creigh Deeds, the losing Democrat in Virginia. He got saddled with Obama’s unpopular policy positions, while Obama’s likability naturally didn’t make him any more charismatic or inspiring. At the end of his campaign, Deeds ran an ad consisting entirely of Obama waxing poetic about him at a campaign rally, in the forlorn hope the magic would rub off.
It didn’t, and it won’t for other Democrats. The mandate gap threatens their congressional majority. They’ll persist anyway, sprinkling more pixie dust on their tattered fairy tale and wishing, wishing it were so.
(Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.)
© 2009 by King Features Synd., Inc.