Tuesday's Lessons: The Center Holds

By Washington Post, Washington Post - November 5, 2009

THOUGH we endorsed candidates in local races this year, we didn't have a dog in the fight for the Upstate New York congressional seat that went to Democratic candidate Bill Owens on Tuesday. So we neither laud nor lament Mr. Owens's victory over Conservative Party standard-bearer Doug Hoffman. However, we do have an interest in the overall tone and content of this country's political debate, and in a strong, credible two-party system. In that sense, the New York result is good news.

It represented a defeat for hard-line Republicans who had seen the race as an opportunity to take control of the opposition to the Obama administration and steer it in a more strident, purist direction. For them, strumming the anger notes of tea-party activists, and not renewed outreach to disaffected moderates, represented the best future for the party. Headed by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and former House majority leader Richard K. Armey (Tex.), the ultraconservatives derided the Republican nominee for the seat, state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, as too liberal, and got behind Mr. Hoffman, ultimately driving Ms. Scozzafava from the race. If it had succeeded, this attempt to impose ideological orthodoxy on an already conservative Republican Party would have stoked polarization both within Republican ranks and in the broader body politic. But it failed.

By contrast, the Republicans who won last night, governors-elect Robert F. McDonnell of Virginia and Chris Christie of New Jersey, ran as center-right problem-solvers. We don't agree with all of their ideas -- our differences with Mr. McDonnell are a matter of record. But there is no denying that their approach worked with the voters. There is a lesson here for Republicans, and perhaps also for Democrats: The results in Virginia and New Jersey may or may not represent a repudiation of the Obama presidency; we tend to think they do not. But they did signal to Democratic members of Congress -- especially those who represent Republican-leaning states -- that voters are getting nervous about the size and indebtedness of the federal government. If that fortifies centrist lawmakers and makes them more likely to insist that any health-care reform come with a credible plan to pay for it, then that, too, would be a welcome consequence of Tuesday night.

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