"To a hammer," the old saying says, "everything looks like a nail." And to the Beltway insiders who push corporate-friendly "bipartisanship," every election proves that voters really want to be governed by an amalgam of elites from both parties.
For some reason they call that "centrism," even though it leads to policies which voters in both parties typically dislike. Forget it. Let's anticipate their arguments and look past them – at the world as it is, not as they would have us believe it is.
It's Election Day 2013. Get ready for the spin.
Unless something surprising happens, Terry McAuliffe will win Virginia's governor's race, Bill De Blasio will become New York City's mayor, and Governor Chris Christie will win an easy reelection in New Jersey.
Here's another prediction: De Blasio's victory will be dismissed by most pundits, while Christie's and especially McAuliffe's will be touted as a vindication of "centrist" politics. We'll hear new calls for something called "bipartisanship," a term applied to policies which are opposed by most of the electorate but have the support of corporate-backed officials from both parties. "Bipartisan" policies include unpopular cuts to Medicare and Social Security, a reluctance to invest in jobs and growth, and unseemly and harmful tax breaks for corporations.
Once again we'll hear that Democrats must return to the "third way" Clinton-style corporate centrism of years gone by. We'll be told that voters have rejected progressive and populist politics, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is "living in the past."
Actually, it's the third way-ers who are living in the past. The old triangulating Democratic Party won its victories in the 1990s, when our economy, our society, and our prospects for the future were very different.
Let's look at those races without the distorting filter of an insular insider's bias.
Terry McAuliffe was not chosen by the voters of Virginia. He was anointed by party leaders in Washington, showered with money, and foisted upon the voters of that commonwealth. Those voters were not given a choice between his brand of insider politics and a truly populist candidate.
McAuliffe isn't projected to win because Virginians have embraced his ethos of Beltway-insider collaboration. He's projected to win for one simple reason: he's not Ken Cuccinelli. Cuccinelli, McAuliffe's Republican opponent, has self-destructed rather impressively in this campaign. Why? Because he embodies the new Republican Party. Apparently voters, especially female ones, don't care for that very much.
We don't have enough room here to catalog all of Cuccinelli's misdeeds. Here are a few highlights: He paralyzed Virginia's budget talks as Attorney General in an attempt to defund Planned Parenthood. He tried to ban common forms of birth control, including the pill. He personally donated thousands of dollars to some of those "crisis pregnancy centers" that lie to women in a vulnerable time.
Cuccinelli's anti-women behavior may have earned him the title of Republican Party Id. If so, that will have to do, since he's not likely to win the title of "Governor." It turns out that most voters agree with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who said she was "sick of debating the social issues like it's 1913, not 2013."
That doesn't mean Virginia voters are buying what Terry McAuliffe is selling. They have a negative opinion of both Cuccinelli and McAuliffe. The good news for McAuliffe, such as it is, is that he's less disliked than his opponent. His latest rating was 42% favorable versus 45% unfavorable, which is less negative than that of the deeply disliked Mr. Cuccinelli.
That's hardly what George W. Bush used to call "a mandate to govern."
A Helluva Town
That won't stop the spinmeisters from telling us that the Virginia election points the way to "a new Democratic strategy aimed at the center," or some such phrase. They'll tell us to ignore a progressive populist's overwhelming victory in New York City, and will insist that Virginia's results are a sign that voters want a "centrist," corporatist Democratic Party.
The opposite is true: New York City, not Virginia, is the real test case. It was in the Democratic primary there that voters were given a choice between a truly "bipartisan" candidate, Christine Quinn, and the genuinely populist and progressive Bill de Blasio. De Blasio prevailed and is now about to soar to a decisive victory against the Republican in the general election.
The insiders will insist that New York City elections can tell us nothing about future trends, because it's an atypical population. But there are large urban centers in every swing state in America. Statewide and nationwide races are won and lost every election year because of factors like turnout and margins of victory within large cities.
New York City tried the insiders' kind of bipartisanship. In fact, it hasn't elected a Democratic mayor in 20 years. Now, after two decades of Republican-flavored centrism, they are rejecting the "centrist" agenda in favor of genuine progressive populism.
They'll also tell us that Chris Christie's reelection in New Jersey is a win for "bipartisanship." But there's a simpler explanation for his victory.
Anybody who's followed his career knows that Chris Christie doesn't win by "reaching across the aisle," unless he does it with one hand in a fist and the other wrapped around a dollar bill.
Chris Christie will win because he's an extraordinarily gifted politician. He'll also win because he uses the powers of the governor's office to reward his friends and punish his enemies.
Christie's blend of clubhouse dealmaking and tough-guy charisma wasn't invented by the Democratic Leadership Committee. It dates back a lot further than that. He's an old-style political boss, and he's very good at it.
Progressive Ideas Win
Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008 by rejecting old-style triangulating Democratic politics. He embraced it after his election, however, and the Democrats went down to defeat the 2010 congressional elections. Obama positioned himself as a centrist in 2011 in early 2012, until plunging poll numbers convinced him to pivot back toward the populist policies Washington associates with "the left."
He was re-elected as a result.
Poll after poll has reported that Americans want more done on jobs. They want higher taxes for the wealthy and corporations. They want more educational opportunity, more social mobility, and more confidence in their economic future. These are policy planks that win.
What's more, the voting population is changing. Even the deep Southern states are seeing growth in the numbers of unmarried women, young people, Hispanics, and African Americans on the voting rolls. These groups have come to be known as the "Rising American Electorate."
Democrat vs. Democrat
This is not the United States of the 1990s. The politics of that bygone era don't work anymore.
The Republican Party is, not to put too fine a point on it, going insane. That's an opportunity for Democrats. Will their party run with an uninspiring and unpopular "centrist" agenda, and pray that their opponents will always be as incompetent as Cuccinelli? Or will they build an agenda for the future, based on the world – and the electorate – as it exists today and will be tomorrow?
There's something else Democrats should remember – something which was proved by Barack Obama's upset victory in 2008, something that was demonstrated by the victories of Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, Sherrod Brown in Ohio, and Jeff Merkley in Oregon.
To paraphrase another old saying: In a race between a Democrat and a Democrat, the Democrat wins every time.