By creating deficits unequaled as a percentage of the economy since World War II, by proposing to nearly triple the national debt in the next 10 years, by using the economic crisis as an excuse for the massive expansion of government authority over health care, Obama has become a polarizing figure. Of course, some Republicans thrive on ideological combat and would seek it even if unprovoked. But it is Obama's tax-and-spend ambitions that have united Republicans of every stripe in opposition, put fiscally conservative Democrats in an impossible bind, and ceded the economic center to Republican candidates in Virginia and New Jersey.
Advocates of purity politics on both left and right see Tuesday's lessons differently. "If you abandon Democratic principles in a bid for unnecessary 'bipartisanship,'" we read in the DailyKos, "you will lose votes." But what could this possibility mean in practice? Would Democrats have saved Virginia and New Jersey if they embraced a single-payer takeover of American health care? If they proposed another trillion dollars in new debt? Yes, Democratic turnout and enthusiasm were down in both states. But this is likely because Obamamania was an acute, not chronic, malady. And though Obama remains fairly popular, his liberal policies look considerably less appealing without his winning personality on the ticket.
Others make a similar argument with a different ideology: If only more conservatives were nominated, such as Doug Hoffman in New York's 23rd Congressional District, the party might be pure enough to excite the base. Liberal Republicans who eventually endorse Democrats, such as Hoffman's opponent, should probably expect a conservative primary challenge. But this strategy is self-destructive when universalized. Would Republican appeal throughout the Northeast really be expanded by more ideological nominees? Though the Republican Party will remain the conservative party nationally, it is not possible for Republicans to win everywhere with an identical conservative message.
The Republican candidates who won on Tuesday were generally conservative, but not angry. They were supported by the Republican base, but spent most of their time reaching toward the middle. It was a center-right victory in a center-right country.
Politicians who have run for governor -- say, Bill Clinton -- had a good feel for the politics of the center. Obama has yet to demonstrate it. According to the White House, on election night he was "not watching returns" -- displaying a French monarch's indifference to America's shifting middle.
Now comes Obama's largest test, which will determine the ideological atmosphere for the 2010 election. If the president -- opposed by a majority of Americans, with almost no support from the other party -- imposes an ideologically divisive health reform, it will smack of radicalism, reinforce polarization, and may cede the ideological center to Republicans for years to come.