Although the fates of individual election contests around the country and in New Jersey remain uncertain, there is little doubt about which political party will fare better at the polls on Tuesday. Barring a series of stunning upsets and reversals, Republicans will pick up significant numbers of seats in Congress and could win control of the House and possibly the Senate.
A more difficult item to predict, however, is the direction the Republican Party will take after Tuesday’s election results are complete. The seeds already have been sown for an ideological battle between those on the far right and the more moderate members of the party. The increasing popularity of the Tea Party and the success of its candidates in GOP primaries have bolstered the position of the more conservative wing of the party. On the other hand, some leading Republicans fear that the Tea Party candidates will be unable to garner broader support in the general elections and could ultimately become a detriment to the party’s chances in future elections.
Clearly, the battle for the soul of the Republican Party will be a fascinating one to watch, but the future of the Democratic Party may have an even greater impact on public policy. Regardless of what their GOP counterparts do in the aftermath of Tuesday’s election, I suspect that the Democrat Party will be moving further to the right.
Simply for pragmatic reasons, Democrats may need to move away from some of their more progressive platforms in order to capture enough of the independent voting bloc necessary to win most elections. The mood of the country is shifting. A series of Gallup and USA Today/Gallup surveys conducted between January and June of this year concluded that:
“The ideological orientation of Americans seen thus far in 2010 would represent a record-high level of conservatism (since at least 1992) if it is maintained for the full year. This follows an increase in the percentage of conservatives in 2009 that was fueled by heightened conservatism among independents, a pattern that continues today.”
A Democratic shift toward the right surely will anger some of the party’s base, but the potential benefits outweigh the risks. At the end of the day, the more liberal members of the Democrat Party will still find a watered-down version of the party more appealing than the GOP – and a more viable option than a third party.
Conversely, if Tea Party candidates make respectable showings on Tuesday and the far right wing of the GOP becomes the dominating force in the party, it could drive away independent voters with moderate ideologies who have been leaning Republican. Democrats will become a more attractive option for these voters if the party extends an olive branch of sorts and moves even slightly toward the right.
In New Jersey, we should not be surprised if Democrats start sounding more like Republicans in next year’s 2011 legislative campaigns. It’s no secret that Republican Governor Chris Christie’s approach to government and fiscal policy is resonating with residents of the Garden State and also garnering national attention. Some high-profile New Jersey Democrats have even chastised fellow party members for not advancing the Governor’s agenda.
For example, Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. recently urged the State Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, to act on Christie’s “tool kit” legislation, which is designed to help local governments control costs. “The State Legislature can’t continue to drag their feet and delay discussion and passage of these much-needed reforms,” DiVincenzo said in a news release. “The Governor presented these initiatives earlier this year and our representatives have had all summer to debate. Enough is enough. Let’s cut the politicking and support the Governor’s reform package so our residents can get some relief from the high cost of government.”
There are national parallels in this year’s Congressional midterm elections. With President Obama’s favorability numbers dropping, Democrats in tough races have been quick to distance themselves from the President and his agenda and to tout more centrist credentials. In New Jersey’s hotly contested Third Congressional District, incumbent Democrat John Adler’s campaign has noted that Adler was named the 23rd most conservative Democrat in the House of Representatives by the Washington Post. Some Democrats outside New Jersey are even running ads boasting about standing up to the President and Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
While moving to the right may make sense strategically, it does not serve the citizenry — or for that matter – democracy very well. Rather than having a choice between candidates with different approaches to government and public policy, it becomes a choice between conservative and more conservative (and the issue would be the same if the choice was between liberal and more liberal).
Democracy works best, and is strongest when a wide variety of voices and divergent opinions are used to formulate public policy. “A jump to the left” and “a step to the right” are great lyrics from the Rocky Horror Show, but they don’t work nearly as well as guidelines for a healthy democracy.
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Richard A. Lee is Communications Director of the Hall Institute of Public Policy – New Jersey. A former journalist and Deputy Communications Director for the Governor, he also teaches courses in media and government at Rutgers University, where he is completing work on a Ph.D. in media studies.