Rumblings from the voters in ‘wrong–track’ America

(Centennial Fellow) After suffering the only defeat of his long political career in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, election the young “Tip” O’Neill was flabbergasted to learn that his own barber had voted for his opponent. When pressed for an explanation, the barber replied simply: “He asked for my vote, Tip. You didn’t.”

Never forgetting this experience of the very personal nature of politics, O’Neill in later years as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives would give voice to a timeless maxim: “All Politics Is Local.”

As Democrats and Republicans alike spin the results of greatly differing elections and claim broad trends favoring their party in 2012, thoughtful observers would do better to heed the wisdom of O’Neil’s famous maxim. It is impossible to find in this national election mosaic a coherent narrative predictive of 2012. Each election is best understood in the context of the local conditions in which it was fought.

No jurisdiction offered a better example of striking cross currents in voter sentiment than Ohio which simultaneously rejected the central element of Obamacare- the individual mandate- and overturned the sweeping restrictions on collective bargaining engineered by Republican Governor John Kasich. Remarkably both results were by roughly 2 to 1 margins, meaning that fully a third of Buckeye state voters chose to give both political parties a smack in the chops.

Yet another example of contradiction was Mississippi which gave Republicans control of the governor’s office, and both legislative chambers for the first time since Reconstruction, but also strongly rejected a “Pro–Life” amendment to the state constitution. Oddly the impetus for this amendment came from Colorado folks who had lost a similar effort in their own state. That Mississippi, a bastion of Pro–Life sentiment, would handily defeat this amendment, was best explained by Pro–Life Republican Governor Haley Barbour who described it as badly written and likely to have unforeseen negative consequences.

An issue where a seeming contradiction might actually be good citizen judgment is voter registration. While Maine overturned a Republican sponsored ban on Election Day registration, Mississippi became the latest state to require photo–IDs for registration. Voters may well have made the shrewd judgment that how late you register is less important than being sure you’re eligible to register.

Beyond its ill–starred meddling in Mississippi, Colorado gained attention by being the only place in the nation to have a statewide tax increase on the ballot. On a recent visit to Sedona an ex–college roommate/ex–Arizona legislator asked me “Whose bright idea was that?” His puzzlement proved apt when a few days later Colorado voters walloped this initiative (Proposition 103) by a stunning 65 to 35 margin and for good measure turned down virtually every local tax raising measure as well. With brilliant insight sheepish Democratic sponsors of Prop 103 opined that the weak economy “probably influenced voters”.

Unquestionably the best example of electoral contradiction and confusion was provided by the Newark Star–Ledger. Based on the loss of just one Republican legislative seat, the paper’s banner front page headline read: “N.J. Dems Finally Give Christie a Black Eye”, while inside their lead editorial opined the opposite: “This result is meaningless. Christie has lost nothing since his budget slashing success rests on his undisturbed alliance with powerful Democratic leaders who understand the insanity of the state’s fiscal condition”.

Yet in Virginia a gain of just one seat did mean a lot since it gave Republicans who already own one chamber and the Governor’s office control of the Senate and more importantly final control of the redistricting process.

What this kaleidoscope of “local politics” means for 2012 no one can say for certain. The national economic crisis has given our politics a volatility that defies prediction.

What we do know is that a large majority (73%) of Americans believe the country is on the “wrong track”, and they are deeply unhappy that politicians in Washington have done nothing meaningful to provide remedies. In this environment for either party to believe their spinmeisters is a recipe for political suicide come next November.


William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post, and Human Events. He is a Fellow of the Centennial Institute.

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