Nothing like getting outside the Beltway—even if only by driving up I-95 to Delaware. Because what I heard at a little polling place in Newark, Dela., told me, even before the day’s election results were in, exactly what to expect in November:
President Obama, meanwhile, is behaving like a guy unsure of which way to run as buildings collapse around him.
Two instructive things happened yesterday, and the contrast between them was even more instructive:
- Christine O’Donnell, a perennial loser with a trainload of baggage—but also a Palin-backed Mama Grizzly riding a wave of voter disgust with the political establishment—pulled off the upset of the year so far. She beat the well-liked, but way-too-incumbent moderate Rep. Mike Castle for the Republican Senate nomination in Delaware.
- The president, meanwhile, was a few miles farther up I-95, spending his time (and the Democrats’) delivering an anodyne, utterly forgettable pep talk to schoolkids in Philadelphia about the need to study hard in school and forget about the fact that their parents might not have jobs in this lousy economy! Are you kidding me? Who was this trip designed to impress? Is anyone against working hard? Is any independent voter this fall going to vote for the Dems as a result of the president’s forthright, candid and brave stand?
I am getting some nasty e-mails from people telling me that I am wrong to assume that the Democrats are going to get clobbered this fall. But it is pretty clear that voters are in a mood to wreak vengeance on the powers that be, and the powers that be (now that the intramurals are over) generally are Democrats.
In a quiet, middle-class precinct—a cross section of genteel homes near the University of Delaware, and smaller, boxier ones closer to the old auto plants—almost every Republican voter I talked to wanted to vote for O’Donnell. That in itself was remarkable, given that Castle was well known and, until the last couple of weeks, well liked.
Facing a Tea Party groundswell, Castle—widely thought of as a nice guy— launched a vicious, lavishly funded attack on O’Donnell. It persuaded some voters to turn away from her and settle for Castle. “I reluctantly voted for him,” said Louise Jones, a university administrator. “I wanted to vote for her, but I found out that there were too many questions.”
But Jones added that the Tea Party was good for the GOP and the country. “I think it’s useful to change things up, and those people aren’t crazy in the way the media has portrayed them. I agree with them that we have to worry about whether the government is taking over every facet of our lives. And I really care about fiscal responsibility. That’s what this election is going to be all about, I think.”
Democrats are busy trying to convince themselves that the GOP is hopelessly divided. I didn’t see that in Newark, Dela. Many of the O’Donnell voters were women, interestingly, and cared about party unity. I didn’t find a single Castle voter who said he or she would vote for Democrat Chris Coons if O’Donnell won.
This theme is probably wishful thinking on the part of the Dems. The GOP will be united around a few simple ideas: tax cuts, budget cuts, spending cuts, and rolling back Obama’s health-care and environmental agenda. That message seems likely to power the GOP to big gains, maybe even to control of Congress.
People are so angry and frustrated that they will lash out at the only big shots they control: not the banks, not Wall Street, not China, not the Beltway media, but elected officials.
How can Obama and Dems survive? Well, it’s OK, and necessary, to attack the likely GOP leadership’s agenda. They really do want to steer Social Security toward the private sector; they do want to let the wealthy keep all of their many tax cuts; and they really are hypocritical about earmarks and spending.
NEWSWEEK's Howard Fineman talks about the Deleware primary race, in which tea party candidate Christine McDonnell's former campaign manager recorded a robocall against her., Video muted: click volume for sound
But Obama also needs to be able to defend and explain —compellingly and in kitchen-table terms—the good things he has done for real people in his first two years. There are specifics in the Recovery Act worth defending; there are even features of the health-care law worth bragging about. There are many items in the financial-reform law, too, worth talking about.
If Bill Clinton were president, I know what he would be doing: he’d have found 100 things to brag about.
Polls are self-fulfilling prophecies. Advisers who are too influenced by polls merely reinforce them. Right now the data say voters don’t like the stimulus, don’t like the health-care law, don’t understand the financial-reform measure. And so the president and the White House seem almost loath to talk about them in any gritty detail. It’s as though they are running away as fast as they can. They’d rather talk about working hard in school.
But an attack unanswered is an attack accepted, and the White House has let the GOP frame these issues. I wrote in NEWSWEEK last week that the health-care law was a loser. Well, it’s the president’s job to prove me wrong—and I think it can be done.
A classroom speech is not an answer. If Obama can’t do better, he may soon be dealing with Sen. O’Donnell from Delaware.