Heilemann: The Democrats’ Three Most Troubling Realities

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Biden, at least, came off well yesterday. Photo: Getty Images

The morning after an unusually interesting and closely watched set of off-year elections, the air is filled with the sounds of Republicans gloating, Democrats fretting, and the White House saying, in effect, “Move along, everyone, move along, there’s nothing to see here.”

None of these reactions are surprising in the least, for even with New York’s 23rd congressional district having delivered Barack Obama and his party a nice consolation prize, the GOP victories in Virginia and New Jersey — and, more important, what voters in those states told exit pollsters about their attitudes — made it a very good night for the out party, and that laid bare a number of realities that are troubling indeed for Democrats.

The most obvious of those are three: First, the degree of anxiety about the economy remains sky-high in every segment of the electorate. Second, independent voters swung dramatically away from the Democrats and toward the Republicans. And third, the Obama base (especially the young voters) stayed home in droves.

For the administration and its allies in Congress, the combination of those three facts carry any number of problematic implications heading into 2010. But let me focus on just one. The independent voters who fueled the wins of Bob McDonnell in Virginia and Chris Christie in New Jersey are, by and large, concerned about the growth of government and focused on the federal deficit as a proxy for that worry. But with the unemployment rate still rising, the macroeconomic case for deficit-cutting in the short run is weak; in fact, most economists would argue that the situation calls for further stimulus. This presents a conflict between smart politics and smart policy that Obama and his team will be wrestling mightily with in the months ahead — and to which there’s no easy resolution.

For Republicans, the question will be what lesson to draw from the results of yesterday. The answer is plain enough to see. As John Judis points out, both McDonnell and Christie ran to the center and won. In NY-23, the nuthouse right, from Sarah Palin to Dick Armey (abetted by those, such as Minnesota governor and likely presidential aspirant Tim Pawlenty, who were eager to prove their grassroots bona fides), pushed out the moderate standard-bearer Dede Scozzafava in favor of conservative Doug Hoffman — and the GOP wound up losing. But will the Republican base take the hint? Don’t count on it.

There are plenty of lists floating around the web of yesterday’s ancillary winners and losers (like here, for example), to which I’d add one name in each category.

Winner: Joe Biden, who campaigned for Bill Owens in NY-23 — taking on Palin in a V.P. candidate grudge match — and proved yet again that he has some mojo in swing districts.

Loser: Anthony Weiner, who took a pass on challenging Mike Bloomberg because the race for New York’s City Hall looked like a sure loser, only to learn last night that it was actually within reach — for an actual candidate with actual candidate skills, that is.

Related: Does Last Night Actually Say Anything About Obama? [NYM]