Only the most addicted political buffs will read much into the results of this year's off-off-year elections. But to the commentators, critics, climbers and just fans hooked on politics, a most powerful hallucinogenic, there may be all kinds of deep meanings hidden in last week's scattered returns. Political junkies need only peer into the murky depths and call forth deep significance -- like a gypsy fortune teller examining your palm and finding portents galore therein.
True seers tend to be those who claim not to be, like old Amos -- no, not Mr. Amos Jones, Owner and Operator of the Fresh Air Cab Company on the old "Amos 'n' Andy Show," but the one in the Old Testament. The one who claimed to be neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but just a simple shepherd who gathered a few acorns here and there. Even a blind hog may happen on one from time to time, like some hapless newspaper columnist peering through a thicket of disparate election returns looking for a pattern, any pattern, in all that undergrowth, or even a sign of things to come. It's great fun if you don't take it too seriously.
Last week's tea leaves/election returns may say a good deal more about the present than the future, and what they say, if anything, may depend on who's looking at them. To some of us they say the whole, mixed-up and deeply divided country has one thing in common: The American people are fed up with both political parties.
Call it a bipartisan disgust. Which is understandable. No sooner had Republicans taken most of the blame for shutting down the federal government than along came the great roll-out of Obamacare, which proved -- and is still proving -- a great fizzle.
Until the trainwreck that was Obamacare's debut, the Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia was favored to win Tuesday's election there by a landslide. But after Obamacare shuddered and stalled on the launching pad, the odds-on favorite in Virginia was lucky to eke out a win over his less-than-popular Republican opponent.
The saddest election returns, expected as they were, came out of New York City, where the voters elected a Democratic mayor for the first time in decades. Expected as they were, the election results in Gotham threaten to return the city to its pre-Rudy Giuliani period, when a succession of incompetent mayors ushered in a Hobbesian state of nature. Labor unions regularly paralyzed the city, the crime-ridden subway system was less public transit than public danger, whole neighborhoods were left to totter into decay, and municipal finances teetered on the edge of bankruptcy time and again.
Think of 1970s New York as a precursor to today's Detroit. Not until Rudy Giuliani, did a leader respond to the flashing Bat signal above a great city in deep distress.
Here's hoping New York's next mayor will have learned from that dreary history, but Bill de Blasio's campaign offered little but the old, worn-out slogans of the left. He came across as an Occupy Wall Street type, if better dressed. Utopian slogans have this way of producing only a dystopian reality. His election does not bode well, but New Yorkers are a hardy type and can survive even progressives.
The most hopeful election returns -- who'd a-thought it a few years back? -- came out of New Jersey, where Chris Christie won re-election as governor of New Jersey by the even more than expected landslide, and came out sounding like a presidential candidate in 2016. As an up-and-coming national figure, he exerts the peculiar charm of Tony Soprano combined with the rarest of abilities these days: He seems to know how to make government work.
Having overdosed on ideology, Americans would be delighted to settle for just plain competence. With maybe a dash of Fiorello LaGuardia on top. Imagine: balanced budgets, bipartisan teamwork, unity and efficiency in a crisis (as when Hurricane Sandy hit), all combined with the tough-guy appeal of a denizen of Joisey.
He's quite a character, this Christie -- a politician less devoted to high-flown rhetoric than just getting things done day after gritty day. Yet he seems to have a real zest for politics and life, for both campaigning and governing. In an era when so many Americans have grown disillusioned and cynical, Chris Christie still practices politics with gusto. The man seems to think it's fun. Some of us have missed that spirit.
It'll be interesting to see how the Chris Christie Show goes over once he leaves the East Coast and heads into the Republican heartland, into Rand Paul and Ted Cruz country. Can he win hearts-and-minds there the way Dwight Eisenhower once won over diehard fans of Robert A. Taft?
It's possible, especially if the right wing of the party proves as foresighted as Sen. Taft did in 1952. Convinced he'd been cheated out of the GOP's presidential nomination that year, and with some grounds for that conviction, Mr. Republican nevertheless went all-out for his former rival. He campaigned for Ike in 20 different states in the Midwest and West, rallying his sullen supporters till, they, too, would like Ike. He even tried (unsuccessfully) to get the imperious Douglas MacArthur to endorse Eisenhower that year. Caesars do not always take well to less pretentious successors.
It all worked out, as things in America will. Ike swept the presidential election, polling 55 percent of the popular vote, carrying all but nine states, and winning with 442 electoral votes to Adlai Stevenson's 89. And a fractured GOP emerged united and upbeat. There's nothing like the prospect of political victory to sweep aside ideological differences within a party.
In 1952, the country was even more deeply divided than it is today, and Americans were ready for peace, prosperity and a spell of good will -- which is just what Ike delivered. But by the fall of 1958, the GOP was in trouble again. The not so Grand Old Party was swamped in the congressional elections of that year, foretelling its defeat in the coming presidential contest of 1960.
It was at that low point in Republican fortunes that an aging prophet named Whittaker Chambers happened upon the perfect metaphor for the kind of true believers who would rather lose than win by compromising their most cherished obsessions in any way. In the dying autumn of that year, old Whittaker Chambers penned this still relevant diagnosis and warning in a letter to a promising young conservative editor named William F. Buckley:
"If the Republican Party cannot get some grip of the actual world we live in, and from it generalize and actively promote a program that means something to masses of people -- why, somebody else will. There will be nothing to argue. The voters will simply vote Republicans into singularity. The Republican Party will become like one of those dark little shops which apparently never sell anything. If, for any reason, you go in, you find, at the back, an old man, fingering for his own pleasure some oddments of cloth. Nobody wants to buy them, which is fine because the old man is not really interested in selling. He just likes to hold and to feel."
Whittaker Chambers could be writing today in the dismal aftermath of the not so Great Government Shutdown of 2013.
For the moment, GOP fortunes have been saved by the unraveling travesty called Obamacare, but the party cannot hope to regain its old strength solely on basis of the opposition's weakness. It must offer a positive alternative of its own, one that means something to the great majority of the American people. But are Republicans listening?