Last night proved once again the inanity of the media and the off-year elections, trying to come up with a Rorschach test out of some random blobs of ink (inanity best captured by the Jon Stewart clip below). There were higher-profile wins for the GOP, to be sure, in the two governor's races and conservatives' successful putdown of gay marriage in Maine, but the Democrats' captured an upstate New York congressional seat that includes counties that have been Republican since 1871, won a California House race by a larger than expected margin and won a gay-marriage vote in Washington while beating back right-wing anti-tax measures in that state and also in Maine. Then there's the Michael Bloomberg Party -- more on that in a second.
I think that for Republicans -- with all the focus on the civil war in that NY-23 District -- the real lessons are to be found in Virginia and Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell's runaway victory there. McDonnell was someone whose deep conservative roots were enough to keep the base happy, but he introduced himself to Virginia voters as a moderate, more concerned with the bread-and-butter of jobs than the social issues that drove his early career. As unemployment hovers at the brink of 10 percent, 2010 will be a good year for the GOP if it has the discipline to follow the McDonnell playbook. But do you think that will happen? The series of unfortunate Republican events in upstate New York suggests that it won't.
The one clear message from voters last night has been mostly lost in the partisan clutter (although Newsweek's Howard Fineman talked about this on MSNBC last night). It's not just that voters continue to be mad at incumbents, although I believe there is that. It is that the American people may have had its fill of rich people. Because the absolute worst Election Night of all was the one experienced by the two billionaires on the ballot.
Republican-turned-independent Michael Bloomberg should have won re-election in a walk. Keeping New York City fairly stable in the aftermath of a terrorist attack and then as Ground Zero for an economic meltdown, the founder of the lucrative business-news network that's used by most Wall Street traders and investors spent a whopping $100 million of his fortune to ensure a third term, even after the Democrats put up a fairly tepid opponent. Instead, Bloomberg escaped with his political life, capturing just 51 percent of an election that was supposed to be a landslide.
Then we have New Jersey's Jon Corzine, the former head of Wall Street behemoth Goldman Sachs who followed the Bloomberg model to political success. Indeed, both Corzine and Bloomberg are not natural politicians at all; both men are awkward in pressing the flesh, and uninspiring public speakers. So how did they go so far in politics? Like Cyndi Lauper said, money changes everything. They bought political friends (and even girlfriends), bought hours of TV time, and ultimately bought elections. The reason that voters didn't resent that was that it was the 2000s, and who didn't want to be a billionaire?
Until 2009. Suddenly, a briefcase full of cash didn't make you a genius anymore, not when so many voters are hurting so badly. In New York, there was widespread resentment over Bloomberg's obscene spending and his heavy-handed tactics to repeal the city's term limits. Ditto for Corzine, who spent his millions on an off-putting negative campaign that started by running against George W. Bush, which would have been appreciated in 2005 but seemed pretty ridiculous now, and ended by essentially calling now Gov.-elect Chris Christie fat.
Being a good Republican, Christie was incapable of running a populist campaign against Wall Street's Corzine -- he might have won in a landslide if he had. Every day, America learns more about the cancer known as Goldman Sachs, which Rolling Stone's Matt Taibi once brilliantly described as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”
Over the next 12 months, I think voters will grow even madder at any politician who smells like money. They'll be reading things like the current McClatchy takedown of Goldman Sachs and its role in the mortgage foreclosure crisis, and blood will boil. And in 2010 the electorate won't only take that out on actual billionaires but the mere millionaire politicians who enabled them -- Democrat or Republican.
That's the lesson of 2009, and it's not a new one. During the last economic crisis, the Great Depression, America turned to a liberal in FDR who aggressively enacted social programs, but Roosevelt's landslide re-election in 1936 only came after verbal warfare against the "economic royalists" who were destroying the country. If President Obama and congressional Democrats want to duplicate that success, they'll need to stop kowtowing to bankers and go after the economic royalists of the 21st Century, the way that hundreds of thousands of voters went after Jon Corzine and Michael Bloomberg yesterday.