woody_zimmerman_118_2007Humorist and singer Ray Stevens famously sang a song about how folks in the country would lay a recently deceased person out in the parlor at home and hold a kind of wake at the house, in place of a viewing, because there were no funeral homes nearby. As the song goes:

The church would loan you foldin' chairs,

An’ you'd have visitation and everything right there.

But when the night time come,

You'd have to sit up with the dead,

'cause it wasn't right to leave 'em alone.

He continues the tale:

Well, the last time I sat up was in '65,

When my old arthritic Uncle Fred died.

He was 97 and so stooped over

That the mortician couldn't straighten him out.

They used a loggin' chain to hold him down.

Covered that all up with a cape and a gown,

An’ didn't tell nobody in the family,

'cause that's the kinda stuff folks just don't wanna know about...

Well, we were all sittin' there, it was three in the mornin'
An’ then there come up a cloud a-thunder, lightnin' and stormin'.
Well, that lightnin' flashed! And that thunder clapped!
And that chain 'round old Uncle Fred went snap!
It rattled and fell to the floor with a thump,

An’ Uncle Fred just sat right up... (Yeow!)

When Uncle Fred sat up, so did everyone there.

An’ there come a great partin' of the foldin' chairs.

I ain't never seen so much jumpin' and shovin' before…” [1]

I cite this whimsical text because it reminds me so much of what happened, politically, this past week. The “corpse” of the Republican Party – declared “dead,” “stone dead,” and “deader than dead” by various commentators, since the 2008 election – just sat right up. The result has been a “great partin’ of the foldin’ chairs,” with more pushin’ and shovin’ than has been seen for some time in various Democrat funeral parlors. That corpse showed surprising vigor for one so recently (and tragically) departed. It would appear, in fact, that the GOP wasn’t dead at all, but was merely taking a power nap before pulling up its suspenders and rolling up its sleeves to take the field once again.

Election-results for the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey seemed to shock Democrats still basking in the afterglow of Barack Obama’s historic victory, although only the contest in New Jersey was truly in doubt beforehand. (I live in Northern Virginia, where some of the action took place.) Likeable, youthful former state attorney general Bob McDonnell – accompanied by his comely wife and handsome family of grown children – stumped the Old Dominion with a message of fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, improved roads, and jobs, (Jobs! JOBS!), to win a resounding 59-41% decision over formerly moderate Democrat Creigh (rhymes with Lee) Deeds, who ran as an Obama liberal.

Although the president appeared at rallies with Mr. Deeds, the attempt to replicate Mr. Obama’s glorious “hope” campaign of 2008 fell completely flat with Virginians. Mr. Deeds completely misread the temper of the state and ran a lackluster campaign in which he stumbled and stammered over the issue of raising taxes. He also showed no disposition for grappling with the highway-funding issue. Roads are an ongoing issue for the northern counties, which have heavy traffic and an aging infrastructure. The wealthy region sends plenteous taxes to the state, but is perpetually starved for highway funds because it lacks enough political clout to get its share back.

A “down-stater,” besides acting like a classic liberal, Mr. Deeds did not present an encouraging prospect to the state’s northern contingent. The only thing really in doubt was the final margin of a McDonnell victory. Mr. Obama kept a discreet distance from Creigh Deeds in the final stretch, having given up on that doomed campaign weeks before. Mr. McDonnell won going away.

Somehow – and Democrats evidently found this astonishing – Mr. Deeds’ message of vintage Obama “hope and change” simply didn’t resonate with Virginians now wary of hazy golden promises that mask higher taxes and business as usual. Having endured two Democrat governors over the past eight years, Virginians were not buying what Mr. Deeds was selling. He was a blast from the past, while voters were looking forward to leaving recession and regaining prosperity. The Obama message seemed almost quaintly anachronistic, not to mention ineffective, given that Mr. Obama’s policies have done nothing to reduce unemployment, but have arguably increased it.

Indeed, those policies promise only higher taxes and crushing new debt. The fantastically expensive “cap and trade” and nationalized health care legislation – both already passed by the House of Representatives – were the absolute last straw for Virginians. All politics may be “local,” as Tip O’Neil once said, but the economy is a national issue with local implications – or perhaps the other way round. Virginians have spoken, and their message is: “let’s try a change from the previous ‘change’.”

New Jersey was both different and the same, in certain ways. I lived in Jersey for 4 years, so I understand a little about the state. I claim no significant expertise, but several things were clear beyond doubt:

  1. Unemployment in New Jersey has gone from 5.8% a year ago to 9.8% now;

  2. Governor Corzine was deeply unpopular, with approval ratings consistently below 40% in a thoroughly Democrat state;

  3. Democrats’ efforts to make Chris Christie’s weight an election issue might have been the most spectacularly flopped campaign tactic in history;

  4. New Jersey taxes are among the highest in the nation, and its citizens are beginning to catch on to the fact that it’s not “pretty much the same everywhere else;”

  5. The Obama magic could not make New Jerseyans swallow four more years of Mr. Corzine.

Mr. Obama carried both Virginia and New Jersey by sizeable majorities last year. But last week, the legions of young voters wearing “Change We Can Believe In” tee-shirts did not vote in the same numbers that propelled the charismatic young president into office. Democrat deep thinkers wave this off as the typical flightiness of young voters, but they might be whistling past the graveyard. Independents, who voted decisively for Mr. Obama, went for McDonnell and Christie by a margin of 2-1.

In 2008, Mr. Obama made big (if nebulous) promises. This year, he is governing, and we have all had a good look at his brand of “change.” From where a lot of those young and independent voters stand, 10.2% unemployment – over 17%, if all the unemployed who have stopped looking for jobs are counted – does not look hopeful. Something has to give, and more tired old bromides about “hope and change” were not going to do it. The Virginia and New Jersey governors’ races were certainly local politics, but they had a national flavor, too. Democrats will ignore their lessons at their peril. They could fall as fast as they rose.

As for sittin’ up with the dead GOP – reports of a political party’s demise are usually much exaggerated. In 2003-’04, some commentators predicted that Democrats would be a minority party for years – possibly decades – to come. Yet in 2006 a war-weary public, sickened by political corruption, put Democrats back in charge of both houses of Congress. Two years later, voters elected a slick, virtually unknown, and totally inexperienced young senator to the presidency because he promised “change,” gave inspiring speeches, and looked good in a $2000 suit.

Times change – sometimes with amazing speed – and now they may be a-changin’ again. Religion is not the only venue where the dead can rise again. We may not need those folding chairs after all.

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[1] Lyrics by C. W. Kalb, Jr.