Note: The following was written by Bill Phillips, a Democratic political consultant in Washington State. Mr. Phillips is a graduate of Louisiana State University and a former officer in the LSU College Democrats. His views DO NOT in ANY way reflect those of the proprietor of this blog.
Champagne flowed freely in GOP circles as Scott Brown, largely unknown just weeks ago, became the newest United States Senator from Massachusetts, replacing liberal icon Ted Kennedy. That Kennedy made health care his life's work and Brown won after vowing to kill the Democratic reform plan only made conservatives' bubbly tickle their noses more pleasantly. But does policy even matter this year?
Make no mistake; the GOP has had some cause to celebrate lately. Gubernatorial wins in Virginia and New Jersey, followed by what was considered unthinkable in Massachusetts as recently as New Years Day, have pumped the elephants full of confidence as a national mood of incumbent distrust, in place since 2006, shows no sign of abating until the economy gets back on track and jobs return.
The Dow has surged back over 10,000 even as unemployment rises. Americans see the wealthy getting richer while their own fortunes decline, and righteous anger continues to sear the political landscape. This creates dangerous times for the party in power, leading to celebration and talk of a comeback for Republicans – even though Republican policies of unregulated corporate excess were largely responsible for the downturn. Fair? Of course not, but no one said politics plays by rules of fairness. President Obama can attest to that, as his personal favorable rating remains very high even though his party is getting waylaid at the polls.
Republicans have successfully campaigned against incumbents since the 2008 Obama win, culminating in the first GOP Senator from Massachusetts in over 30 years – albeit one who is pro-choice and considered even more liberal than his Democratic opponent in some circles. Is this truly the sign of a resurgent Republican party, or do Republican gains simply continue an anti-incumbent mood in place since 2006, when voters cleaned House and provided Democrats a solid Senate majority?
Until we see incumbent Republicans in swing states re-elected by large margins, or Republican-held seats withstanding strong Democratic challenges, we have no real way of knowing. This hasn't stopped mainstream media from breathlessly reporting on the imminent demise of donkeys everywhere, but the inarguable reality is Republican incumbents have had little or nothing on the line in recent elections. GOP losses would have been somewhat expected, while victories were considered stunning. An anti-incumbent mood this November could easily sweep out as many Republicans as Democrats under current circumstances.
Republicans have not established a consistent national 'brand'. Not surprising, since the RNC would be hard-pressed to explain concisely what it stands for aside from more tax cuts and less regulation, the very ingredients that spawned our current economic crisis. The right is ideologically schizophrenic, fearing a big-government 'nanny state' while simultaneously waging obnoxious morality crusades against gay rights and reproductive freedom. Tea Party protesters carry signs excoriating the TARP bailouts, which were bipartisan in nature and begun under George W. Bush. These are the kinds of inconsistencies Scott Brown skillfully avoided, claiming only to be an outsider who would bring his brand of common sense and change to Washington. Sound familiar?
The problem with this strategy, as Democrats have learned over the past year, is that you're no longer an outsider once hired to be on the inside. Whatever you're trying to fix becomes your problem almost from the minute you take office. Republicans who see 2010 as the beginning of the end of the Democratic Party may well reap the ire of an anti-incumbent yet Obama-approving electorate in 2012 which, incidentally, is when Scott Brown must face voters again, presumably without an inept opponent to help his chances.
Bill Phillips is currently Chair of the Snohomish County Democrats in the state of Washington. He is Director and Senior Consultant for Sound Strategies, a not-for-profit political consulting firm specializing in local races. He attended Louisiana State University and has been a Democratic activist since 1988.