Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Tsongas Sinks the Og

No honest person can call it a rout, but that wasn't required. Niki Tsongas' 51% of the 5th Congressional District's vote to lead challenger Jim Ogonowski's 45% is what we call a win in the political biz.

She was not particularly inspiring and he was a relative dullard and often cheap-shot artist. The special-election campaign to replace the status hungry, office quitting U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan was in many ways awkward. It was the political equivalent of a first date, first dance of high-school freshmen. Neither Democrat Tsongas nor Republican Ogonowski had political experience or even had run for office before.

Tag Ends: For the record, the final included three also-ran politicians. The report in the Lowell Sun ranked them at 2%, 1% and about 0%, for independents Patrick Murphy and Kurt Hayes, and Constitution Party Kevin Thompson.

On the face of it, both lead candidates played emotional cards again and again. One is the widow of a beloved U.S. Representative and Senator, and the other a brother of a pilot whose plane was hijacked and flown into a World Trade Tower on 9/11. More people voted for the widow.

Moniker note: In many blogs and even MSM, Ogonowski's mouth awkward Polish name has morphed into rock musician style Ogo for brevity. However, this gives him more punch along with more pronounceability. His gruffness makes me think of his as Og or the Og. Feel free to call him the great and powerful Og.

Family Lessons

As I am wont to ask my three boys, when we look at this election, what can we learn from this? I figure quite a bit.

You could start off real LITE and simple. Even though fairly progressive (but not real progressive) Dems have held this seat for a long time, the district is damned conservative by Massachusetts standards. Even voters who self-identify as socially liberal may be fiscally conservative, like guns, favor continuing the Iraq war to the end, and maybe even fear undocumented immigrants, even though that is a negligible problem there.

So the six percentage point victory is, on the surface, really a failure for the Dem. After all, many local and national Dems endorsed her and campaigned for her. So, did virtually all the big newspapers, except for very right wing Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, endorse Niki. Without thinking at all deeply about it, you could claim that her inability to skunk the Og in these circumstances is as much a failure as Democratic Rep. Chester Atkins who won reelection for this seat by an almost identical margin. The party replaced him in the next election (1992) with Marty Meehan, who ran much stronger.

If that's as far as you want to go, you can check out the low-thought, low-brow version at Hub Politics with This Tsucks: Tsongas Declares Victory and We Made Them Sweat. These are similar to the Og's whiny response to his loss. On the other hand, if Republicans or anyone is to learn real lessons from this defeat, they need to do a lot, lot better than these.

Getting Real

Republicans throughout the commonwealth, but particularly in such conservative areas should in fact take heart from the close race, even against an unproven amateur. They should be inspired to challenge incumbents as well as running for open seats. That would be a positive and welcome change from the many uncontested local, state and national seats, with no Republican or independent challengers.

The Og showed solid strength. While his support did not grow, it did hold steady for the several months of the short campaign. His ending up as whiny and mean should not obscure a victory nearly in hand.

It is unfortunate too that toward the end he ended up with a hypocritical public persona. His speeches and ads were unnecessarily nasty and dishonest. At the same time, he called Niki's ads out, even when they quoted him in context about S-CHIP. I can't believe that that alone cost him the election, but I would hope that future GOP candidates would be savvier and more honorable.

That kind of duplicity can occasionally work in town or other localized contests. It doesn't hold up well for a Congressional seat and would not weather a typical long campaign cycle. Then again, he was a much a first-timer as Niki. Mistakes were made.


Particularly for such relative unknowns, comportment and presentation account for a lot with many voters, more the older the voters are. Other Republicans can learn a bit from the Og here.

He was not entirely graceless in announcing concession, but close. This was the time to leave the best impression with those who voted for you and against you — powder for the next political shot. Of course, winner Niki had the better task; it is much easier to play nice when you are on top. The Og should practice his social and therefore political skills if he wants to run for this or another office.

Watch the clip and see how he is sadly cold. Then, he unfortunately makes no effort to stifle his crowd's chorus of boos on announcing his loss. Someone needs to dope slap him for that.

Throughout the announcement, he comes off as very chilly Midwestern, like one of Garrison Keillor's Lutherans. Although the Poles and Polish-Americans I have known are openly expressive, clearly his family culutre is not.

Consider that if there was ever a moment to show modest but sincere public display of affection, such a speech was it. You would expect him to look tenderly at his devoted wife and press a warm kiss of thanks on her lips. Instead, he went all Hollywood on her, turning his cheek for a quick, emotionless peck. In fact, in all his contacts with his family, he kissed no one. He gave a son a hug-like motion, but laterally. It was incidental quasi-affection.

The only real emotion he exhibited was in mentioning his late brother. He gave a gasp and seemed to have moist uvea in at least one eye. Considering that he used images of his brother's plane crashing into a skyscraper in his campaign, even that was somewhat blunted.

In contrast, Niki's speech seemed warm and gracious. While my sense from seeing her in public repeatedly is that she's not the world's most sincere person, but she's fine and in contrast to the Og's stiffness, she was positively charming.

While the Og remained to the end prickly and overly competitive, she was conciliatory (another lesson for the GOP guys). The Og said in his speech that "we taught them a thing or two." That came across like a bloodied sixth grader who lost his schoolyard slug fest but has to play tough anyway.

Interestingly enough, both used the phrase "hard-fought campaign." He played little soldier, while she thanked him as well as the also-rans, them for enriching and contributing to the discussion and debate in the campaign. Likewise, she stressed working together and cooperation for the betterment of the people of the district. He offered nothing remotely resembling that.

He seemed to have that mindset that a gracious loser is still a loser. He should mature a bit and grow out of that.

Underlying Themes

So how is it that a Dem candidate, even an unproven and inexperienced one, could eke a narrow victory in a solidly Democratic victory over an unproven and inexperienced Republican? Plus, this district is not permeated by a history of lefties, with the union exceptions of places like Lowell. Even in those, many voters are relatively conservative on many subjects.

The Og and Niki started after the primary in nearly the same position they finished. Neither seemed to gain or lose many votes. There were even some obvious contrasts. She wants the Iraq troops as soon as practical; he's a stay-the-course guy. She favors liberal naturalization for undocumented immigrants; he offers no quarter.

The biggy is that Dems were tired and disappointed. The Og had no competition in the primary, but Niki was in a bruising and confusing primary. In particular, Eileen Donoghue, Barry Finegold, and Jamie Eldridge each had passionate followers. (Remember that I was strongly for the only progressive, Eldridge.) As a result, I suspect that quite a few disaffected Dems didn't bother to vote.

Lessons Learned

Yet, we shouldn't get tied up by the Og's gruffness. There's plenty for all sides to learn.

First and most obvious, GOPpers and indies should not assume that Dems will win such seats. There are tons of DINOs there. Just as some politicians join the dominant party for the best chance of election, many voters join for such perks as voting in primaries. There are lots of mugwumps who are nominal Democrats. Some of those uncontested offices are missed opportunities. The tricks are figuring out which ones and putting up the right candidates.

This may really be a blue state, but there are many shades and some damned pale pastels around. Massachusetts is not homogeneous, not universally liberal, and not all voters are liberal across all their political positions.

Many of us saw Niki as a relatively marginal and immature candidate. She was spongy on some issues and wrong on others, such as her fantasy that big medical concerns will give consumers reasonable prices if only the free market operates with minimal regulation. (Save me, nurse!)

This left plenty of chance for strong candidates with well articulated position and citizen benefits to run. Likewise, future races should see non-Dems step up in risky and undecided precincts, towns and districts. The Og didn't handle it well in toto, but his relative success against an inexperienced candidate should nonetheless be heartening.

The Og was surely in one of the best possible congressional districts to play social conservative and hawk. In fact, in immediate retrospect, he may have done even better if he hadn't qualified his war support. He always started with saying we shouldn't have gone in and followed up with, but as long as we're there... An unqualified position would certainly have played better with the conservatives, Dem and GOPpers alike.

Dems too damned well should pay attention. Most obviously, stay focused and don't assume that a Republican or independent can't win.

Moreover, they need to differentiate their positions and articulate them clearly. "Mumble, mumble, trust me" does not play as well as specific platforms and promises. Niki for one was short on those. Fortunately for her, the Og was even more of a waffle, not even saying how he'd vote on the highly visible S-CHIP override. Honk. Wrong answer, Jim. Thanks for playing.

Finally, it would benefit the Democratic party to grow some 'nads and stake out the progressive side of the future. As shown in the seminal Pew study from March, Congress has gone pretty far right of most American voters. This is the time to articulate progressive views and stop being so fearful. Americans think we ought to take care of each other, feed the poor, educate all and on and on.

The biggest plus there would be that Democrats would again be clearly distinctive from the mean-spirited and rich-favoring Republican Party. That's a lot of platform to stand and run on! That could be the future and it could once again start here.

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