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Two Dots Don't Make a Political Map

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

It is the duty of every pundit to be all-knowing on what the recent elections mean for the future of American politics. They may have only three dots to connect -- and two dots may have been state-level contests mostly about local issues -- but the confident ones plot detailed maps of political change.

The "story" out of the recent gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey is that independents are angry at Democrats and voting for Republicans (though the opposite happened in upstate New York's congressional race). True, independents crucial to Obama's win in both Virginia and New Jersey handed victory to Republican candidates. But does that reflect their views on the debates in Washington or even Obama? Not much.

In Virginia, Republican Bob McDonnell smartly positioned himself as a moderate. One of his key issues was public transportation, not exactly a conservative passion. Nonetheless, most opinionators chose to tie his strong performance to voter discomfort with an activist Democratic agenda, epitomized by national health care reform.

Now observe McDonnell's two-step on its most controversial element -- a government-run health plan known as the public option. Asked on Sunday about the public option, Gov.-elect McDonnell told CNN that it was "not helpful." Probed further on whether he'd want Virginia to opt out of the public option -- as states could do under proposed legislation -- he wouldn't say yes.

On to New Jersey. Already saddled with a budget mess, the Garden State was punched this year with another of its honking corruption scandals. Republican Chris Christie enjoyed the double benefit of being an ex-federal prosecutor and running against a charm-deficient Democrat. Meanwhile, he much softened his "pro-life" stance. Christie was both lucky and politically astute.

Funny how independents pop up to determine winners in elections and then disappear from the national discourse. There's Fox for right-wingers and MSNBC for leftists. While CNN and PBS are less ideological, their panels tend to pair Democrats with Republicans.

Independents don't fall into neat partisan packages that make for good TV. Most are socially liberal and fiscally conservative. Some are the opposite.

Consider the brawl over the public option, which, the received wisdom tells us, is a liberal thing. Actually, it should be a fiscally conservative thing, because it would hold down the costs of health care. That would help curb budget deficits.

Republicans want to keep a public plan out of the mix and thus leave private insurers free to charge higher premiums for the well-being of their tycoon CEOs and shareholders. Remember how Republicans kept government out of their Medicare drug benefit? The benefit is now projected to cost taxpayers about $800 billion over the next 10 years; Republicans "forgot" to fund it. The Democrats are reforming the whole darn health care system (coverage for the uninsured included) for not much more, and they plan to pay for it through fees and taxes. So which party is more serious about deficits?

Face it: Many of the "fiscal conservatives" opposed to the public option -- including some Blue Dog Democrats -- have been bought by the insurance industry. Connecticut's "independent" Sen. Joe Lieberman is in a class by himself. Since 2000, Lieberman has scooped up $800,000 from the insurance industry. His wife worked for a health care lobbying firm.

Back at the TV studios, the political experts are jabbering about the "warnings for Democrats" divined from the scant 2009 election results. And the all-important independents are again being talked about, but not doing the talking. Mistake. These voters are famously unpredictable, and you'll need more than two dots to plot their course for 2010.

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