Along with tarot cards and goat entrails, a lot of people believe they can divine hidden meaning from the results of off-year elections, like the ones in Virginia, New York and New Jersey on Tuesday. I'm skeptical. For one thing, nobody bothers to wait for the polls to close anymore--the "meaning" of the results has been hammered out in advance. A GOP sweep will be taken as proof that conservatives are resurgent and President Obama's agenda is in trouble, while Democratic wins in New York and New Jersey--Virginia is hopeless--will demonstrate that conservatives have gone off the deep end. (Any other combination will mean a dull night for cable television.)
A year after Obama's landslide victory and the expanded Democratic margins that brought in the House and Senate, the political landscape has changed, but not nearly to the degree that the "pre-" post-race analysis would have you believe. It's changed marginally--and only marginally--in the direction that almost anyone could have predicted a year ago: As campaign promises give way to actual policy tradeoffs, as the political world stubbornly fails to morph into something resembling those embarrassing old Coke commercials where everybody holds hands and sings, Democrats are falling back to earth a bit and an impatient, naive sliver of the electorate is growing jaded. But that's it.
More important that Tuesday's election tallies, whatever they may be, are two directional trends in the electorate that will probably have much broader effects. One year after Obama's victory, anger at George W. Bush is ebbing, and right-wing fury at pretty much everything is flowing. This suggests to me that both Democrats and Republicans are going to have a tougher time going forward, Democrats because they'll have a harder time motivating their base and Republicans because they have effectively lost control of theirs.
What does that mean? I think it means that Democrats will have a hard time in 2010 holding onto some of the seats they won in 2006 and 2008, when disgust with Bush was at its apex. Their margin in the House will probably shrink. This will further encourage and strengthen the right wing of the Republican Party, whose primary problem will be...the Republican primary. It may not look that way to the tea-bagging, Palin-loving crowd in ascendance, and I, for one, look forward to a truly spectacular season of Stephen Colbert if it happens. But these kinds of movements are high-intensity, low-ceilinged affairs whose appeal lies chiefly within their own political sphere. The lesson of NY-23, if one is to be drawn (and regardless of whether Doug Hoffman wins or loses), is that the Republican right wing is now the dominant wing of the party. If, when GOP presidential aspirants position themselves in earnest for the party primary in 2011, the tenor of the candidates resembles that of Hoffman and his major supporters, I'd bet on Obama to win in a rout.
The pointless thing about prognostications, even ones as vague as these, is that they can't factor in any of the changes that could occur in the interim. And there are bound to be plenty of them: major health-care reform seems likely; a weak economy and high unemployment seem possible; and the introduction of a compelling Republican agenda is at least feasible. So let's take a deep breath and remember to view Tuesday night's elections for what they really are: A landslide (Virginia), a circus (New York), and a Lions-vs.-Rams battle of bottom-dwellers between two of New Jersey's least popular politicians.