Liberals’ Doug Hoffman Problem

Three elections scheduled for Tuesday—the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races and the special House election in New York’s 23rd district—have garnered national attention in recent weeks. Now it seems possible, and perhaps likely, that Democrats will lose all three contests. Creigh Deeds looks dead in the water in Virginia, John Corzine could easily lose in New Jersey, and the conservative party candidate, Doug Hoffman, looks set to win in NY-23. The actual impact of losing all three races would not be nearly as large as the perceived impact. But in Washington, perception often morphs into reality. 

A Republican sweep of the races the media has chosen to focus on (there’s another House special in California that Dems are almost certain to win) will doubtless be spun as a rebuke of President Barack Obama and his “liberal” governing agenda. If Hoffman wins in NY-23, it will hammer home that narrative—with support from national Republicans, Hoffman pushed a moderate Republican, Dede Scozzafava, out of the race. Scozzafava has since endorsed the Democrat, Bill Owens, who is actually more conservative than she is on some social issues. Andrew Sullivan says a Hoffman win would eventually be bad news for the GOP:

From the mindset of an ideologically purist base – where a moderate Republican in New York state is a “radical leftist” – this makes sense. But for all those outside the 20 percent self-identified Republican base, it looks like a mix of a purge and a clusterfuck. If Hoffman wins, and is then embraced by the GOP establishment, you have a recipe for a real nutroots take-over.

Perhaps. Scozzafava’s destriction has certainly emboldened conservatives to think that they’ll be able to deny another moderate, Charlie Crist, the Republican nomination for Senate in Florida.

But I think Hoffman’s success, especially among independents (he leads them 52-30 in PPP’s latest poll) signals a different, deeper problem for liberals. As the recent WSJ/NBC poll highlighted, Americans really don’t trust government. Much of that, I suspect, is the result of the bank bailouts—as Neil Barofsky, TARP’s inspector general, pointed out last month, the bailouts did immense, lasting damage to the public’s faith in their elected officials. “This cannot be seen as just a Wall Street bailout,” Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the chair of the House banking committee, famously warned when Hank Paulson came asking for $700 billion last year. But that’s exactly what happened.

Even though Paulson and George W. Bush asked for the bailout money, it’s liberals who will pay the price in the long run. Liberalism is based on the idea that government offers solutions to people’s problems. When you don’t trust the government, Doug Hoffman’s argument that there should be less of it seems awfully appealing.

This is why liberals’ biggest priority should be restoring people’s faith in government. Part of that requires actually solving people’s problems. That means fixing the economy. It would also help to if Democrats avoided bailing out any more widely reviled industries, and maybe regulated some stuff. But even if Democrats can’t fix things right away, they can still institute  reforms that go to the heart of why people don’t trust their representatives—including, crucially, public financing of elections. The public sees politicians—almost all of them—as bought and paid for. Public financing would go a long way towards fixing that.

UPDATE: Jim Newell somewhat sarcastically summarizes here.