Only himself to blame
You could practically hear elated Virginia Republicans doing backflips in their kitchens last spring when the Democrats picked Terry McAuliffe to run for governor -- a candidate so flawed, so insubstantial, so unversed in state government and so tainted by decades of shady dealings that he would simply collapse in the heat of an election.
Who knew that Mr. McAuliffe, the most prolific campaign fundraiser of his generation, would have so much money or that he'd use some of it on negative advertising?
No fair! That's the cry from some Republicans, especially tea party acolytes of Ken Cuccinelli II, the GOP candidate who lost narrowly Tuesday. In a spilt-milk snit, they are crying foul. A sulking Mr. Cuccinelli has refused to make the traditional call to congratulate Mr. McAuliffe on his victory.
It may be news to the tea party, but politics can be rough. The vicious and negative ads, statements and news releases flew in both directions, every day, for months. Yes, Mr. McAuliffe, who raised $34 million, outspent Mr. Cuccinelli by $15 million. His fundraising prowess cannot have come as a surprise to the Cuccinelli camp; Mr. Cuccinelli's lesser haul in turn resulted in part from his position on the far right of the Republican spectrum.
We're not in the business of offering advice to political parties (but) it's worth saying this to Republicans: If they wish to remain a viable political force in a moderate, purple state, they should take the right lessons from Tuesday's defeat.
The Cuccinelli record had nothing to do with job-creation or the state's economic success or alleviating deepening transportation problems, all of which are central to Virginians' well-being. It was mainly about bashing homosexuals, harassing illegal immigrants, crusading against abortion, denying climate change, flirting with birthers and opposing gun control. A hero to the tea party and a culture warrior of the first rank, Mr. Cuccinelli lost because he was among the most polarizing and provocative figures in Richmond for a decade.
The GOP-inspired government shutdown did not help matters for Mr. Cuccinelli.
In a purple state, Mr. Cuccinelli captured the GOP nomination on the strength of support from like-minded stalwarts on the party's fringe. Nominated in mid-May, he trailed in every poll after mid-July. The battle for the middle ground, and for Virginia's rich crop of swing voters, was decided early in Mr. McAuliffe's favor. Mr. Cuccinelli, despite valiant efforts, could never escape his own record.
In Washington, a crisis in competence
Elected officials in the nation's capital have spent the past several weeks demonstrating that they can't do the jobs voters sent them there to do. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers got into an extended spat that shut down much of the government for 16 days and threatened to turn Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew into the world's biggest deadbeat. Meanwhile, the Obama administration launched a website for the new federally operated health insurance exchanges that failed epically, with so many design flaws and technical problems that it may take weeks to reach a basic level of reliability.
Granted, the government shutdown and the HealthCare.gov meltdown happened for very different reasons. The former was a result of a cynical and ill-conceived gambit by House Republicans, who tried to force changes in Obamacare that they didn't have the votes to win. The latter stemmed from the administration's inept management of a complex project, a problem exacerbated by political imperatives that repeatedly trumped technical ones.
The overarching message to the public, however, is the same in both instances: Your leaders are incompetent.
Dwindling faith in government has contributed to a pessimism about the economy that discourages consumer spending, the lifeblood of U.S. growth. According to surveys, the relentless stream of bad news out of Washington last month coincided with sharp drops in consumers' hopes for the economy and their confidence about the future.
The administration can undo some of the damage by fixing HealthCare.gov soon, giving people ample time to shop before policies are supposed to go into effect Jan. 1. But Washington faces another potential shutdown and default early next year, when the temporary measures enacted in mid-October expire. The best way for lawmakers to avoid a replay of last month's debacle would be to strike a deal before the end of the year that keeps federal agencies operating and the Treasury paying its bills.
That's easier said than done, considering how far apart House Republicans and Senate Democrats are -- and how polarized their constituents are too. Yet the lesson of Tuesday's gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia may be that ideologues are in less demand than leaders who can work across the political aisle to get things done. We're not asking for miracles here, just competence.
--The Los Angeles Times, Nov. 7