The Lessons From New York

Well, the Democrats picked up the NY-23 House seat. What lessons can be drawn from this?

First up, let’s acknowledge the obvious: it was a loss for the Republican party.

Especially its leadership.

The local leaders, when the incumbent was tapped by Obama to be Secretary of the Army (in a play to both “bring more Republicans into the administration” so as to provide “bipartisan” cover and to free up a seat they thought a Democrat could easily win), didn’t have a primary to pick their nominee. Rather, they looked around, saw that Obama had carried the district in November, and picked a a candidate they thought could win. And the national leadership didn’t bat an eye; they saw that Scozzafava had the right letter after her name, and checked off without looking too carefully.

Others did, though. And they found that Scozzafava’s liberal credentials were even stronger than the Democratic nominee. So strong, in fact, that Daily Kos actually crossed party lines and backed her over the Democrat.

This is when the rank and file started to rebel. They got a guy to run on the Conservative Party ticket and started throwing their weight behind him instead of Scozzafava. And they got some serious help: national conservative figures (starting with Fred Thompson, then Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, among others) backed the guy.

That got the steamroller going. Hoffman (the Conservative Party guy) soon found himself with a ton of campaign contributions from all across the nation, as well as national attention and support.

And what a steamroller it was. Hoffman went from a schlub nobody third-party loser in single digits into a major contender. Major enough to take that liberal Republican right off the boards.

Said Republican didn’t go down quietly, though. She took all the support she’d collected from the local and national GOP, and tossed it all behind the Democrat — who won.

Think about that for a moment. This gawky, dorky schlemiel accountant from a third party managed — in a matter of weeks — to destroy the GOP leadership-anointed candidate and come within a few percentage points of beating the Democrats. And he did this with the opposition (direct and indirect) of the biggest officials of both parties.

And how did that happen? To be blunt, Hoffman himself had very little to do with it. (If you saw the guy on TV, you saw he was definitely an amateur politician.) It was literally a grass-roots move, aided and abetted by people that the national GOP leadership quite frankly doesn’t like too much. It was a solid rejection of the party leadership by the people the leadership claims to be representing.

There are those who are trying to spin this as some sort of defeat for Palin and the Tea Party people. And yeah, it was — their guy lost.

But in the bigger picture, it’s only as much of a defeat as they want it to be. Losing a single election simply isn’t enough to squash movements like this. It usually takes either a completely crushing defeat, or a victory that they are unprepared for, that undoes such movements. (Ask Minnesota’s Jesse Ventura on that one.) Here, the conservatives utterly destroyed the most liberal candidate on the ballot, and almost beat the Democrat — who had the endorsement of the Republican.

And what did the Democrats win? One more House seat where they already had a comfortable lead. Now they’ll have an incumbent who will only have a single year to build up his support before he’ll be challenged again — quite likely by the same candidate, this time with the full backing of the Republican party. (If they’re smart, that is, and he runs again.) Hell, they might have been better off if they’d lost it — Scozzafava was even more in tune with the Democratic agenda than Congressman-Elect Owens.

The real message out of New York? The parties can no longer take for granted their power and authority. The explosion of alternate means of communication has given rise to a whole host of new avenues to power — and a whole new crop of leaders who not only didn’t use the old systems, but couldn’t care less about them.

There are times that call for leaders. There are times when leaders need to step forward and show the way to the people.

And there are times when the leaders need to recognize that the people have their own ideas about which way to go. At that point, the leaders have three choices: they can go off in their own direction by themselves, they can stand still and get trampled, or they can race with the crowd and try to get ahead of them to at least seem like they’re still leaders. They can try to ride the tiger, with all the dangers that ensue.

It’s time to ride the tiger. Some get that.

Sarah Palin, for one, does get that.

Newt Gingrich, for one, doesn’t get that.

Nor does Michael Steele.

They better learn, and learn fast.

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