The Republicans had yet to concede Virginia and there were around a dozen House races still too close to call when New York magazine hit the stands the week of the midterm elections. It featured a picture of Hillary Clinton and the words: "And now the real race begins."
Elsewhere CNN had already designed a banner for the bottom of the screen that read "America Votes 2008." The Economist ran a cartoon of Clinton and John McCain on horseback with the headline: "And they’re off! The real election campaign gets under way."
November’s elections, which saw both houses of Congress switch sides, were, it appears, at best symbolic and at worst meaningless. For a substantial vote with real results we must wait two years–2008, it seems, is the new 2006.
The indecent haste with which the punditocracy shifted its attention from the elections that were not yet over to the elections that have not yet begun was instructive. It is not difficult to see why some might disregard the midterms. The President has the power to start wars, withdraw troops and veto legislation. Look at the amount of damage Bush has done this past six years and how little the House and Senate have done to stop him, and you would be forgiven for thinking Congress exists not to further democracy but simply to administer its orderly demise.
Moreover, 60 percent of the people did not vote. Thanks to gerrymandering, roughly 10 percent of the House seats were truly in contention; 8 percent were not contested at all. So in the vast majority of races, that people voted at all owed more to ritual than to any hope of effecting change.
These are all reasons for Americans to ignore elections altogether, not to follow each campaign obsessively only to move on to the next one without stopping to understand what just happened. But given the manner in which the political class views elections–in terms of polls, personalities, cash and coverage–such a seamless transition is not only inevitable but entirely logical.
Elections are big business. This year the parties spent $2 billion on ads alone. Throw the thousands of lobbyists, consultants and fundraisers into the mix, and the electoral-industrial complex starts to develop a momentum of its own. Clinton, who faced only token opposition in a Senate race she won by thirty points, still spent $27,000 on valet parking and $13,000 on flowers.
The mainstream media are complicit in all this. The permanent campaign allows them to transform politics into a never-ending soap opera–a staple diet to feed twenty-four-hour cable news programs and keep the Congressional press corps focused on the race rather than what change might come beyond the finish line.
For the actual issues raised by the midterms seem to have no bearing on whom the pundits have chosen as the favored candidates in two years’ time. According to a Pew Research survey, the most important issue affecting people’s votes this November was the war in Iraq. Yet the people most often touted to run in 2008 are Hillary Clinton, who voted for the war, John McCain, who backed the war and wants to send more troops, and Barack Obama, who opposed the war as a candidate but does not support setting a timetable for troop withdrawal now that he’s in the Senate.
To despair at the absence of decent candidates who could advance a coherent liberal/left agenda at this stage is to miss the point. Presidential politics is not designed to support progressive candidates; indeed, it is set up to exclude them. Monied interests are too prevalent, and the media gatekeepers are too conservative, for good things to happen on purpose. In short, the gulf between what constitutes political "common sense" and "good sense" is too great to be bridged by one election or one person.
Nonetheless, there is sufficient democratic space for us to play a role in shaping the political narrative–regardless of who the protagonists are. For those who do run are feathers for every wind that blows. And it is anybody’s guess what storms will rage eighteen months from now.
Sensing an outpouring of patriotism in the run-up to the war, Democrats seeking the presidency voted for it. Seeing Ned Lamont defeat Joseph Lieberman in the Connecticut primary in August and the public mood calling for troops to be brought home, they spoke against it. Back in 2002, with war imminent and Bush still popular, nobody predicted the rise of Howard Dean or the impact he would have on the Democratic primaries. Neither Dean nor Lamont won. But the point is, a year before they ran neither was supposed to have a chance–and both definitely had an effect. The fact that they were able to mount a challenge owes to forces outside the Democratic Party.
Three key things have boosted the Democrats’ electoral fortunes since the beginning of the Iraq War, and none of them have had much to do with the Democrats. The most important was the strength of the Iraqi resistance. According to experts on foreign policy and public opinion, the key determinant of whether or not Americans support a war is not the morality underpinning the intervention but whether they think they will win. If the war had been the "cakewalk" the Administration promised, Dennis Hastert would still be Speaker of the House. The second, to a lesser but nonetheless significant extent, has been the antiwar movement, which maintained a crucial presence even if it never fully gained electoral expression. And finally, there is Bush’s incompetence, which fertilized the soil for the first two.
In all likelihood the factors that will shape the next presidential election do not yet exist, and if they do we have yet to become sufficiently aware of their importance. Either way, our task as progressives is not to follow the candidates but to create the movements that will bring influence to bear on whoever decides to run. We must see their opportunism as our opportunity. If we build it, they will come.