Posted by Brad @ 4:01 pm on April 25th 2009

Congressman Scott Murphy and the Abject, Total Failure of Dogwhistle Conservatism

Republican James Tedisco conceded defeat Friday in the race to fill the seat vacated by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, handing a sweet victory to Democrat Scott Murphy in the conservative Albany-area district.

Tedisco and Murphy were separated by only a handful of votes following the March 31 special election, setting the stage for nearly a month of intense ballot counting. This week, Murphy’s lead started to grow – he was more than 400 votes ahead Thursday.

“It became clear that the numbers were not going our way and that the time had come to step aside and ensure that the next congressman be seated as quickly as possible,” Tedisco said in a statement. “In the interest of the citizens of the 20th Congressional District and our nation, I wish Scott the very best.”

Murphy, a venture capitalist, said, “I can’t wait to get to work.”

Paging Norm Coleman…

Edit: I wanted to add a few more quick thoughts. At the outset of this election I mentioned that it would be in many ways a litmus test, and I think it was. And while the weeks since the election have sort of stamped out any enthusiasm, it is worth reflecting on, very briefly.

Scott Murphy, it must be said, is not a particularly strong candidate. That’s not to say he’s a weak candidate, just that he wasn’t a SuperStar Dream Candidate. He’d never held elected office, his views are straight party line, if anything on the liberal side of the Democratic spectrum, he had money but not so much to make or break the race. Jim Tedisco, similarly, is not a particularly weak candidate. He was well known, well respected (still is), well spoken, had no scandal hanging over him, and his views put him pretty well in the moderate Republican mainstream.

In other words, these were, in many ways, ideal stand-in sort of candidates.

The nature of the district is hard to bead. Yes, it is a Bush district, and Republicans hold the registration advantage by a significant margin. It had also previously sent Kirsten Gillibrand to the House, and still views her very favorably. There has been talk in Corner sort of circles that, based on that, it’s not really a Republican district. That might have had some merit, and in many ways this could just be considered a tossup district, save for the fact that, a month and a half before the election, Jim Tedisco was up 21 points. Meaning, it’s not like this was just always an even playing field and remained one right up until the end. If it’s 50-50ish in registration and brokes 50-50ish elections, then a 50-50ish result might not matter. But it’s a 60-40 district, does indeed broke close election, but at the outset of this race, the Republican was up 60-40.

What, then happened?

Ironically, the Republicans pushed to make this race a referendum on the national political environs, and to a remarkable extent (chiefly because there was no other action going on), that worked. Both parties more or less effectively made their cases, both poured in money and spokespeople (both about equally), and both candidates toed their party lines and made their party cases about as well as can be made. The race caught fire right at a time when Republicans hoped it would, when they were framing the stimulus debate as Republican vs. Socialism, and when they were assuming that America, at large, was on their side. NY-20 isn’t Grandview (google it), but it came to be a fairly rough approximation. A captive audience, if anything stacked with Republicans, on which the debate over Obama’s first 100 days would face a remarkably clean referendum.

And then, as soon as that happened, Scott Murphy went from 21 points down to winning the race. In less than 45 days (not counting the weeks of counting).

I underline all this just because I assume, like me, that most of us come from a conservative bent of some stripe or another and like to believe that a small government civil liberty and fiscal conservative worldview is, at least in its basest form, relatively popular. And yet, polls show not only that Obama is popular, but that more and more Americans are believing America is back on the right track. We’re not exactly living in an easy carefree period at the moment, but remarkably, Americans (in the “at large” sense) are becoming increasingly persuaded that we’re doing okay, in large measure because of Obama. And for the people that say “the only poll worth anything is an election”, fair enough. We have the 2008 election, and now, lest there be any question of buyer’s remorse, we have NY-20, which is, to me, a pretty convincing data point.

Here is, I think, the fact of it, and neither Republicans nor Democrats seem particularly aware of it: we live in a center-left country. There are strains of individualism that will always have a place in the American context, and it’s from those that libertarians will (and always have) garnered the most success. But despite the view of the Beltway, the Republican party, and most conservative activists, I think they wildly underestimate the difficulty of the task ahead of them, to the point where they seem to take it for granted that they don’t really have to work very hard at all because the value of their case is self-evident. That’s why they couldn’t fathom the reaction they got to the Tea Parties, wherein the media turned on this notion. The protesters shouted “Spending is Bad!” Observers kept pressing “What spending? How bad? What should we do instead?” And there was no answer for that, not because it was a protest, but because most of the anti-Obama forces, I think, don’t even understand the need for persuasion on this point. They assume that saying “he is a tax and spend liberal” is akin to saying “he is soft on crime” in the 80s, just something that is self-evidently damaging. It leaves them a little flummoxed when they have to make the case beyond that, because frankly, they haven’t really had to (or at least not thought they had to) since the Reagan era. They still just assume that the people asking for clarification are the “liberal elites” who are just being snarky, but Nixon’s “silent majority” knows what they mean.

Those days, I think, are over.

Not to overgeneralize too much from NY-20, which is just sort of incidental to this conversation, but I think it’s worth reminding we small government activists that we are not necessarily on the side of The People in the political sense on that question. Kevin at the Liberty Papers writes, even more despondently than me:

The first thing we libertarians and small government conservatives need to admit is we cannot stop Obamaís radical agenda politically. Obama has the support of the American people first of all. Secondly, we are politically discredited from the Bush years.

All we can do is try to educate enough people to realize the dangerous path we are on before it is too late in the time we have left and hope we have enough support to do something.

I don’t think that’s quite right, but I’m sympathizing with it a lot these days. Where I don’t think it’s quite right is I think the real lesson for libertarians and fiscal conservatives and the like is that they need to begin picking their battles, targeting specific things. Frankly, what we’ve seen, from the anti-bailout discussions (which spun out in a million different things that clouded the matter, from cries of socialism to earmark debates) to the Tea Parties, is a wildly overgeneralized critique of liberalism. There, I think, Kevin is right. For the moment anyway, that’s just not flying. What’s more, the more the GOP and the constellation of libertarianish causes bang away at the “Socialism!” drum at its most general and opaque, the more, I think, the public no longer considers them serious participants in the debate. And the more, I think, that the GOP will be befuddled by going into a clean race and making their case as well as they can make it and watching it swing 21 points for the Democrat in a month, not because they didn’t argue their point well, but because those 21+% of voters took the argument into consideration and then categorically rejected it.

I still believe libertarian conservatism has a political case to make, but it’s not going to come by trying to force a center-right vs. center-left blanket referendum. To the extent they do that, they lose. It’s going to come by taking those critiques and honing them to specific issues in specific contexts and taking seriously the job of persuasion on those points, not just preaching to the choir or trying to employ dog whistles to bring in the silent majority that they assume is still out there somewhere but has, in fact, long since left the room.

I’m going to have a post up in a few days that sort of tangentially makes this case about Ron Paul in 2012, wherein you go from “Abolish the Fed” to “Audit the Fed because of this and this and this”. One is a dog whistle. The other is a smart critique that can persuade people.

But as Scott Murphy takes office and Jim Tedisco, a good Republican, goes down (although, unlike Norm Coleman, he’ll live to fight another day), those are some of the thoughts that are swimming around in my head.

1 Comment »

  1. Haha. Man, I bychance went to Kevin’s Liberty Papers post to see if the trackback went through, and the comment section on that particular post of his is deliciously surreal.

    Doug Mataconis, Robert Stacy McCain, Jeff Gannon (who I really really hope is not an alt but the actual Jeff Gannon), and Eric Dondero, all arguing about whether the GOP screwed libertarians or vice versa.

    Needless to say, most of those people really, really need to get out of their respective bubbles and get out more, politically speaking.

    Anyway, I added my own post to that morass. Oh how I hope for some Jeff Gannon cross-traffic.

    Comment by Brad — 4/25/2009 @ 6:46 pm

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