Mississippi chuckling

The wonks are agreed — and I agree with them — that West Virginia had its place yesterday but the real story was down in Mississippi:

Democrats picked up a northern Mississippi House seat in one of the most conservative-minded districts in the country Tuesday night — an upset that will reverberate darkly through a House Republican caucus already reeling from losses in special elections in Illinois and Louisiana.

With all precincts reporting, the Democratic nominee, Prentiss County Chancery Clerk Travis Childers, defeated Republican Greg Davis, 54 to 46 percent. Childers was able to expand his three-point margin of victory from the race’s first round of balloting last month — even as he faced an onslaught of Republican attacks.

The victory marks the Democrats’ third straight special election pickup in three months. It will be a serious blow to the Republican Party’s already-flagging morale and will surely prompt a new round of finger-pointing among the already fractured GOP caucus.

“This loss is going to prompt serious introspection by our conference to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it,” said a GOP leadership aide. “We have time to do that, and we will if we learn our lessons leading into November. But the next couple of days are not going to be pretty.”

First things first — it’s important to note that the Democratic candidate is a fairly conservative guy himself — anti-abortion, pro-gun, for instance. (The first would always be a sticking point with me but the second has become less so over time — not out of any great love for guns or the NRA or any of that, but simply because I think it would be far more interesting to take up the ‘well-regulated militia’ part of the Second Amendment as a point of argument.) In any event, this has led the hapless Tom Cole to say things like “We haven’t lost as a party because of the ideological agenda on the other side,” when personally I think this about says it all:

The $1.27 million that the NRCC spent in the heavily Republican district amounted to nearly 20 percent of the committee’s entire cash-on-hand. The committee has now spent more than $3 million to defend three conservative House seats, losing all three of them, and it is ill-equipped financially to compete fully in an ever-widening playing field for November.

Given that another special election might be in the offing shortly, this could be, how you say, fun.

What’s been more interesting is doing something I hadn’t done in a while — trawling through the various right-leaning sites I’ve made a speciality of checking out over the last few years. In recent months it had been all pretty boring, and overly focused on the Democratic primaries, understandably enough, but the fact that various special elections had been going the Democratic way was starting to cause fear and loathing and etc.

What I hadn’t realized, though, is how…well, pathological is a strong word. But how self-loathing is clearly apparent among so many right-leaning sites (a generic term but one thing more up for grabs than ever is the term ‘GOP,’ which ever more people formerly identifying themselves as Republicans are rejecting for other terms entirely). As with all political discussion, mistaking the comments and immediate reactions of hardcore political junkies for a sense of a shift in the wind in the national mood is fraught with peril, but when results like the Mississippi election are registered — something concrete rather than so much malarkey — then that’s when it gets interesting.

For instance, it was long clear that McCain’s ascendancy was hardly looked upon with happiness by many on the right — little surprise why, there’s a clear sense from him that he feels the party should serve him rather than the other way around, which I perversely admire in a ‘hey, he’s more honest about it than most’ — but I hadn’t realized it had gotten to the point where in the last couple of weeks various posters at RedState had to put up essays going “We should be all be struggling against our common enemy!” The fact that McCain’s speech yesterday treated global warming as something other than a bugbear led to a variety of people identifying the common enemy as McCain once more, and off to the races again.

But again, that’s the presidential race. Post-Mississippi, this is the kind of thing that’s out there:

  • Krikorian at the NRO: “If the GOP can’t hold on to a House seat in the Deep South that Bush won by 25 points, it’s going to be 1974 all over again.”
  • Allahpundit at HotAir: “And so the only election that mattered tonight, the bellwether of this fall’s congressional races, goes the wrong way. I’m going to go find some glue to huff.”
  • Instapundit: “The GOP Congressional delegation didn’t learn its lesson in 2006, and they’re paying the price now….the GOP keeps losing these races they shouldn’t lose.”

And these are the politer assessments. (Most amusingly melodramatic so far: Erick at RedState invoking Moses and wandering in the wilderness, which fits their not-so-crypto-religious martyrology complex — personally I’d say the bit about the ground giving way under Korah’s feet is more appropriate.) Blog comments in general seem to contain some of the worst of humanity (this absolutely exceptional blog and its audience clearly excepted, naturally), so if you want to trawl around for complaints about how McCain and Bush are teaming up with Mexico to sell oil resources in the Gulf to China, go right ahead, because they’re out there. Obama should have said bitter people cling to explanations like that more than anything else, and he would have been elected already.

What’s funniest among the vaguely more sane complaints — or at least more readily legible — is the idea that it’s all about ‘branding.’ Now, all sides in politics obsess over this to a ridiculous degree, it’s just that, as with all political tools to hand, some do it more smoothly than most. (Thus Obama once more.) If you end up reading a lot of comments today, though, you’ll notice a long-running theme that Cole’s already mentioned — namely, that the GOP can’t sell itself properly these days. Some examples:

  • Fred Barnes in the Weekly Standard, just before the Mississippi election (and may I just say it’s been refreshing to see this clod brought up sharp over the last few months): “House minority leader John Boehner talks about fixing the Republican “brand.” Davis’s assessment: “We haven’t done anything the last year and a half to re-do the brand.””
  • Powerline: “But my takeaway is that the Republican brand is in such bad shape that the Dems can win virtually anywhere if they nominate a candidate whose position on key issues is, or can be made to seem, close to that of the Republican.”
  • RedState: “There is no denying it anymore–if it could even be denied in the run-up to tonight; Republicans have serious problems with the brand identity.”

Reducing it all to marketing terms is its own form of amusement and head-shaking, if utterly unexpected in a culture that has over the past few decades reduced everything from Sun Tzu and Clausewitz to David Oglivy down to a philosophy of life in general. But the real kicker is a simple one — it’s all about the public message, somehow, all about how the ads don’t work, how the trademarks and the symbols aren’t as successful as they were. It’s a collective head-scratching that kinda overlooks a key conclusion that a large number of people are starting to make more forcefully:

The product sucks.

Each of the complaints you see above comes from the point of the view that the product doesn’t suck, of course. The whole point is that it can’t suck, it’s not supposed to suck, that it is the correct product for the job at hand. And confidence in one’s own product is certainly mighty handy in order to sell it, if one has to reduce down something minor as the fate of the nation and the society to questions of buying and selling.

But what if the product, in fact, sucks?

There’s a great Peanuts strip that illustrates this key point which I can’t find right now, but at a summer camp meeting which turns out to be a theological one, the kids are all being harangued by a speaker about something (Schulz, wisely, leaves things a bit unclear as to what). Linus raises his hand to ask a question, prefacing it with the words “I don’t want to offend or anything…” which prompts first Charlie Brown and then the others to leave before he completes the question. At the end of the strip, Linus is alone facing the unseen speaker, doggedly going forward with his question: “Have you ever considered that you might be wrong?”

It’s not surprising that ideologues don’t consider that they might be wrong, on the right or on the left, but the ones on the right are a bit more tiresome of late. Going into all the reasons would take a while, but you can see examples above here — if you’re obsessing over branding rather than the product, that means you’re obsessing over how it’s being sold rather than the product itself. There’s no consideration that they might be wrong.

Doubt, reflection, reconsideration — these are key. Questioning your positions and conclusions constantly throughout life — these are key. These are not solutions in and of themselves — this approach can be taken to strange extremes, such as the questioning of the scientific method as opposed to what people have done with the results of that method (but that’s a post for another time). In the realm of politics, as in the realm of life, there is something to be said for putting your thoughts and beliefs under an internal microscope, if not an external one — there are arguments for both ways, among other approaches — and being rigorous in your conclusions. This may be an ideal, and I do not claim to have fulfilled it as much as I could, but I would rather have that as an ideal instead of essentially saying, “Gee, I know I’m right — I’ll blame everything else instead, then.”

There’s much more I could say but I’ve gone on long enough for today — perhaps later in the week. For now, though, pardon my schadenfreude on the one hand if you’ll allow for the sober reflection on the other. Still some months to go — still so much to see.

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