The instant analysis of Tuesday’s election results was hyperbolic: Incumbents are dead! The establishment is finished! The fringes have overtaken the middle! But the portents of doom are, as usual, overblown. A closer look at the results should give substantial comfort to a White House whose mantras are still “Change,” “Hope,” and “Yes We Can.”
First, the obvious: A public that has experienced multi-decade middle-class stagnation is ready to give new voices and ideas a chance, and that means great danger for incumbents. If the “new normal” is anything close to the last decade, we are in deep trouble: median income stagnant; job creation flat; family debt rising; income inequality increasing. More is being demanded by the public than a return to the grim economic realities of pre-recession 2007.
Second, as a consequence, the public is saying to politicians: If you don’t have some creative ideas about how to get where we want to go, get out of the way. The public seems to be adopting FDR’s famous saying: “Try something—if it fails, admit it frankly, and try another. But above all, try something.” The desire for a more fundamental shift explains the appeal of candidates with creative, slightly different ideas—from either side of the traditional ideological spectrum. Arlen Specter and Trey Grayson are quintessential status quo politicians, hence they lost.
Third, Democratic primary voters have not rushed to the fringes in a “tea party” manner. The Democratic winners were quite traditional candidates. Joe Sestak is, after all, a retired three-star admiral and a congressman *. He is a somewhat traditional Democrat whose campaign stood in stark contrast to that of Specter, whose recent conversion to the Democratic Party was purely cynical and tactical. Likewise, Blanche Lincoln and Bill Halter are both well within the mainstream of traditional Democratic politics, even if Halter is somewhat more of a populist and Lincoln hails more from the DLC.
Fourth, Rand Paul and the Tea Party are the Republican equivalent of “Yes we can” compared with Mitch McConnell’s nihilism. A McConnell-led Republican Party that has truly become the “party of no” left itself open to an alternative ideology that could channel the current populist anger and free-market rhetoric that drove the Republican Party for 30 years. Something beats nothing, and McConnell was offering close to nothing to a Republican base hungry for ideas. At least Paul and the Tea Party, incoherent as they may be, articulate an agenda of action, willing to take on concentrated power and wealth.
Fifth, perhaps the most surprising result of the week occurred in New York, where 619 of 670 school budgets on the ballot were passed, despite predictions that a significant percentage, perhaps as many as half, would be rejected. While the public is tired of constant bailouts and unceasing support for companies that haven’t performed, it is still willing to approve taxes for essential services and investments in the future.
Sixth, the ethos of this White House is act, act wisely, and be willing to break with the past. For the White House to embrace Specter over Sestak was a potent and visual statement of emerging status quo-ism that the administration must now reject. A tactical deal to get Specter as a 60th Senate vote could have alienated a base energized by a desire for innovation and change.
But by harnessing its inherent desire to act, experiment, and plunge into the sometimes-uncomfortable realm of the unknown, the Obama White House can still control the agenda going into the November elections. Yes, the core unemployment rate will remain too high, but the reality and perception of creative efforts in energy, education, financial regulation, and job creation will permit the mantle of change to be squarely with the Obama administration. That is the path to victory for Democrats in November.
Correction, May 25, 2010: This article originally misidentified Joe Sestak as a former congressman. Sestak is currently serving in Congress. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)