Commentary: Win the election, win the argument
After winning re-election, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said, "The GOP needs to win elections, not arguments." To which Jay Heinrichs, author of the rhetoric handbook "Thank You for Arguing" responded, "Wrong, governor. The election WAS the argument, and you just won."
Christie did indeed, and by a landslide. But there was another nationally watched gubernatorial race: that between Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe in Virginia, in which McAuliffe emerged victorious.
So we know who won the elections. Therefore, we know who won the arguments.
Now we need to know what the arguments are about. If we use these two high-profile elections as case studies, we might discover a great deal about where we are politically and socially, and where the electorate wants us to go.
Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich posted on Facebook that some "pundits ... are already describing the victories of Terry McAuliffe in Virginia and Chris Christie in New Jersey as a 'return to the center' of American politics." He disagreed with that assessment, claiming that those pundits are "confusing the 'center' with big business and Wall Street. A few decades ago McAuliffe would be viewed as a right-wing Democrat and Christie as a right-wing Republican."
Be that as it may, the exit polls in New Jersey support the contention that Christie "ran as the center." Indeed, Christie beat his female opponent among women by 15 points. He also won self-described moderates by more than 20 points and independents by more than 30 points. He won about half of voters under 30, half the Hispanic vote, 20 percent of the African-American vote, and one-third of the liberal vote.
Perhaps some of those core Democratic constituencies remembered how, in the middle of a bitter, even venomous presidential campaign, Gov. Christie reached across the aisle and embraced President Obama and bipartisanship to tackle the problems of Sandy's aftermath together.
Reich might be right, of course, and Christie may be no more than a conservative in moderate clothing. As Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake wrote in The Washington Post's political blog, The Fix, "Christie is a pragmatic, conservative politician who won a massive victory in a blue state."
Still, proms and politics have this in common: What one wears matters. Dress affects how a date views her partner, and decorum how the voters view a candidate. (Politics is a dance, after all.) And sometimes, we grow into our outfits. If "clothes make the man" -- and woman -- then Christie may find himself becoming more of a moderate than he -- or Republicans -- dreamed.
This may bode well for Christie, who has presidential ambitions, if he can win the Republican nomination. That's a big if, because Christie's re-election was more about him than the Republican brand. Democrats retained control of both houses of the state legislature, and the New Jersey voters who gave Christie a landslide don't like the GOP very much -- only 39 percent hold a favorable view of the Republican Party.
Which brings us to the second result in this "tale of two races." McAuliffe won by a smaller margin than predicted, but he won by "getting his base to the polls." This might seem a counter-argument, except that in Virginia, the race wasn't about McAuliffe. It was about Cuccinelli and the tea party ideology he embodied.
Cuccinelli's platform reads like a tea party wish list: He opposed reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, co-sponsored bills banning abortion, proposed a tax plan that resembled that of congressional Republicans, with cuts to corporate taxes and consequent cuts in Medicare and Social Security. He opposed comprehensive immigration reform and signed the tea party's misnamed "American for Tax Reform" pledge. He had Ted Cruz, almost anathema in the Senate, campaign for him, and had promised to do all he could to defund or destroy Obamacare.
Some Republicans might claim that the late tightness of the race and its "by the party" turnout bodes well for their arguments -- and potential future election victories.
If the election is the argument, then the argument is actually pretty clear: The tea party controls the Republican Party right now, especially in the House. Christie ran his campaign opposing its agenda -- and won. The Democratic Party made the Virginia governor's race a referendum on the tea party -- and won.
Cuccinelli defined his argument when he said, "Nov. 5 is a referendum on Obamacare."
Indeed, it was. And Obamacare won.
(Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.)