Five Lessons From the 2009 Elections

The lessons the two parties draw from the 2009 elections are instructive.

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Nancy Pelosi's successful effort to get healthcare through the U.S. House of Representatives provided the Democrats with a short-term political victory that blunted the impact of the party's losses in the 2009 election. That the bill passed with almost the barest number of "Aye" votes required suggests the party, and the legislation, still has rough sledding ahead.

Whether these elections were a repudiation of Obama and the Democrats is not clear. Supporters of the president argue they were not while his opponents say they were. Most interesting, however, is the lessons each party is drawing from what happened in New Jersey and New York and in Virginia which, even at this late date, deserve additional attention.

Nathan Daschle, the executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, whose candidates got thumped on Nov. 3, attributed their defeats to local issues, not the national climate. Therefore, he suggested, Democrats running for governor in 2010 would do best to stay focused on local issues.

"Republicans are going to try to use federal issues to box in Democrats and we can't fall for that," he told reporters at one post-election briefing. "We need to demonstrate our capacity to govern and our capacity to get results." In plain English this means that Obama, Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and their joint-agenda for bigger government are going to be a drag on the party at the state and local level.

Democrats running in 2010 will not be able to withstand the impact of a nationalized election like the one the Republicans ran in 1994 under Newt Gingrich's Contract with America. But even local elections may turn on federal actions after the Obama administration elected to have the 9/11 plotters stand trial in New York City rather than appear before a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay. Bringing the rest of the "Gitmo" detainees to Illinois, as the plan currently appears to be, isn't going to help either.

Republicans, whether they opt to nationalize the election or not, would do well to follow the advice of former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie who, in a post-election Washington Post op-ed, argued in favor of GOP candidates running on "a positive, detailed policy agenda."

Gillespie, who served as the honorary general chairman of Republican Bob McDonnell's successful gubernatorial campaign, said the election results demonstrated power of a five-point, issues-based strategy for victory that, in fact, have application for both parties, if used correctly.

Those key ideas:

1. Candidates need to convert political principles into practical politics—and explain why those policies translate into improvements in the quality of life of the average voter, in contrast to what the other candidate has proposed;

2. Campaigns need to be run on an inclusive basis, one that reaches out beyond the base for support and does not cede the middle;

3. Candidates need to speak like leaders, communicating ideas and conducting themselves in ways that convey respect for the voters and for the process;

4. Campaigns and candidates need to keep pace with developments in technology, matching at least what the other side is doing if not doing it better;

5. Parties and activists need to back strong candidates, because election usually boils down to two people—sometimes three—competing for the same job.

The contrasting advice put forward by Gillespie and Daschle say a lot about what each party thinks the 2009 election results mean. But they also concur—at least so far as they share the idea that voter preference is more often than not a unique and personal thing, heavily influenced by the sense of which candidate will do a better job. Each, in his own way, also reminds those who run campaigns and those who run in campaigns of the importance of establishing that essential connection with the average voter. Whatever the political climate, whether it's national or local, the voters will almost always respond better to the candidate they perceive is on their side, not somebody else's.

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