President Obama faces a pair of critical tests Tuesday, and how they turn out will tell us something—not “everything” but something important—about the political hit he is taking as a result of the jobs crisis.
They will also offer indications about whether Democrats have really figured out how to use their support of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—the most powerful weapon in their political arsenal—to win elections.
The pair of special elections for open seats in the US House, one for a historically Democratic New York seat in New York City and the other for a Republican-leaning seat in Nevada, will send signals about confidence in the president’s stepped-up focus on job creation versus the Republican austerity agenda.
No special election is ever a perfect indicator of the national political mood. But these two offer legitimate measures.
If Democrats win both seats—with messages that attack Republican threats to the social safety net, especially for the elderly—then these two special elections will serve as extensions of the March special-election win by Kathy Hochul in a western New York district that had been held by Republicans for decades.
If Republicans win both seats, with “blame Obama” messaging, then the already considerable pressure on the president and his partisans could increase considerably. And there will be some evidence that Democrats were damaged when they muddied their message (by suggesting that cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid might be “on the table”) during the debt-ceiling debate—making it harder for them to use what looked to be their best message as a 2012 electoral cudgel. If that’s the case, they are in serious political trouble.
Here are the particulars:
NEW YORK 9th: Sixth months ago, Congressman Anthony Weiner, the scrappy liberal Democratic representative from this Brooklyn-Queens district, was emerging as a national spokesman for his party and his ideology. Now, he’s a political punch line and his district could fall to a Republican. Polling suggests that GOP nominee Bob Turner, a former media executive, running even with (perhaps even a bit ahead of) Democrat David Weprin, an old-school machine pol whose nomination was engineered by party insiders who did not want to run a heavy-hitter for a seat that is likely to be threatened by redistricting. The assumption Democrats could nominate “anyone” and hold Weiner’s seat was grounded in political history: Former House Judiciary Committee chairman Emanuel Cellar took the seat for the Democrats in 1922 and it has been held since by some of the party’s biggest names: Cellar, Elizabeth Holtzman, Chuck Schumer and Weiner. Had Democrats simply nominated Holtzman, who remains an active and engaged player with considerable appeal, they could have easily held the seat.
But the party went “small” and is threatened. Much is being made of this race as a test of Jewish sentiment regarding the Obama administration’s Israel-Palestine policies. There’s something to the argument, and former New York Mayor Ed Koch and the conservative New York Post have tried with all their might to exploit the issue. But Turner’s not Jewish, while Weprin is an observant Orthodox Jew who had put considerable distance between himself and Obama regarding the Middle East. Normally, that would be more than enough to dial down any concerns. But Weprin’s weakness as a candidate and Obama’s weakness on the ground even in New York (one poll suggests his approval rating in the district is just 42 percent) have made a mess of things.