DALE CITY, VA — Bill Clinton, the nation’s politician-in-chief, is on a roll on behalf of his friend Terry McAuliffe, the frontrunner in next week’s election for governor of Virginia.
“If we become ideological, then we’re blind to evidence,” the former president explained to a crowd of loyalists gathered at a VFW hall here last weekend. Previewing a message he is taking across the state in stumping for Democrats facing a Republican ticket led by an unapologetic right-wing ideologue, Ken Cuccinelli, Clinton added that ideology “excites people, but it doesn’t get a darned thing done.”
Yet those inspired by passionate belief — people, Clinton says, with “steam coming out of their ears” — do have one important virtue: “They will show up and vote.” Offering a quick political science lecture about who votes when, Clinton explained that “in the non-presidential years, a whole different America shows up than in the presidential years.” The lesson to moderates and progressives: “You’ve got to care as much about this election as you did about the election in 2012.”
And there, in a few soundbites, is why the elections of 2013 are unlike those of 2009. Four years ago, the three big off-year races — in Virginia, New Jersey and New York City — presaged the Republican sweep of 2010 and, in the case of the first two, the rise of the Tea Party sensibility. This year, all three signal the collapse of the Tea Party and the mobilization of both the political center and the political left.
Take first the matter of who will vote. Four years ago, Democrats were dispirited by the grueling battle over health care and a still-ailing economy. Gov. Bob McDonnell led a Virginia GOP sweep. The progressive turnout was so anemic that exit polls found that only 43 percent of the voters who actually showed up in 2009 had voted for President Obama’s election. This meant that there were a lot of stay-at-home Democrats in a state Obama had carried a year earlier with 53 percent. Professor Clinton had a point about those different Americas.
But this year, it’s those who are riled up against the extreme right who seem ready to vote. The latest Washington Post/Abt-SRBI poll shows McAuliffe ahead of Cuccinelli by 12 percentage points among likely voters, and holding a blowout 24 point lead among women.
While some surveys suggest a somewhat closer race, the Post poll shows how a Tea Party that turned out votes for Republicans in 2009 and 2010 is now dragging the GOP down. Support for the movement has fallen to 36 percent, from 45 percent two years ago. National surveys similarly show the Tea Party on the decline.
And then there is New Jersey, where Republican Gov. Chris Christie is on track to win by a landslide over state Sen. Barbara Buono. My hunch is that national Democrats will regret they did not give Buono, a credible candidate, more help. Piling up big numbers will help Christie if he runs for president in 2016, much as George W. Bush’s huge 1998 re-election in Texas helped his presidential campaign two years later.
But the interpretation of this Christie victory will be very different from how his 2009 triumph over Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine was read. Back then, Christie was part of a wave of anti-tax, anti-Democratic protest. This time, he’s seen as winning over many Democrats and independents precisely because he has distanced himself from the GOP’s far right. The Jersey outcome will reinforce the narrative coming out of Virginia.
Moving to the New York City mayoral race, Democrat Bill de Blasio is enjoying a large lead. How progressive is de Blasio? “My worldview is one part Franklin Roosevelt — the New Deal — one part European social democracy, and one part liberation theology,” he told New York magazine’s Chris Smith. Neither the nation (nor New York City) is about to embrace liberation theology, but de Blasio’s success reflects an energy on the left that was wholly absent in 2009 and 2010. Discontent with a sluggish economy that was channeled rightward three and four years ago now has an outlet on the other side.
All this underscores how exhausted Americans have become with the right wing’s relentless anti-government, anti-Obama fixations. “There are more of us who believe that working together is better than constant conflict,” Clinton declared. This may be the very best explanation of what to expect next Tuesday.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.
Photo: Clinton appears at a rally with McAuliffe in 2009 (mou-ikkai via Flickr)