Athens, Greece – Last Sunday, we visited the ruins of ancient Delphi, two hours
or so from here in the Greek capital, an extraordinary site at the base of Mount
Parnassus overlooking the Pleistos Valley, almost half a mile below. You could
see the acres of olive trees there. The Ionian Sea shimmered on the horizon.
Legend has it that Zeus released two eagles from the opposite ends of the earth.
They met at Delphi, determining that it was the center, the so-called navel
of the world.
Delphi and its temples were where the famous Oracle lived, uttering its often
ambiguous and mysterious predictions through a priestess who spoke on its behalf
– but, our guide claimed, only after inhaling sulfuric vapors from a hole in
the earth and chewing laurel leaves to get into the proper psychotropic mood.
During the Persian Wars, the guide said, Athenians asked the Oracle how to
protect themselves from being attacked by the enemy. The Oracle replied, “A
wall of wood alone shall be uncaptured.” Many of the Athenians figured
that meant they should seek protection behind a formidable wooden barricade.
Makes sense, but the Persians seized the city anyway. Such is the price of being
logical – in my experience, it’s always a mistake to take a priestess imbibing
laurel leaves and sulfur too literally.
Others, the guide continued, interpreted the oracular message in a different
way; believing that “a wall of wood” was a reference to the mighty
Athenian fleet of wooden ships. This time, they got it right – their navy went
to sea and defeated the Persians at the Battle of Salamis.
All of which is a scenic route around to my reaction when reading last Tuesday
night’s election results back home. People were interpreting the Oracle of the
Ballot Box in what seemed like very odd and exaggerated ways.
The Associated Press reported, “Independents who swept Barack Obama to
a historic 2008 victory broke big for Republicans on Tuesday as the GOP wrested
political control from Democrats in Virginia and New Jersey, a troubling sign
for the president and his party heading into an important midterm election year.”
And the lead sentence of the Los Angeles Times read, “By seizing gubernatorial
seats in Virginia and New Jersey, Republicans on Tuesday dispelled any notion
of President Obama’s electoral invincibility, giving the GOP a lift and offering
warning signs to Democrats ahead of the 2010 midterm elections.”
Without resorting to chomping on leaves and sniffing fumes, we should look
at that a little more closely and not let the tide of the mainstream media and
the 24-hour news cycle sweep us away. Were those GOP gains in Virginia and New
Jersey really an indication that the entire nation’s shifting away from the
president? True, President Obama campaigned for both Democrats, but exit polls
showed voters in both states were more interested in local issues than him.
What’s more, in Virginia, Democrat Creigh Deeds was a terrible candidate, and
in New Jersey, although for a while it seemed incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine
might rally, his dismal popularity numbers and a whopping state deficit and
unemployment rate could not be surmounted. And look at those two special races
for House seats in the California tenth and northern New York State’s 23rd –
the Democrats picked up both, for a net gain in Congress of one. Upstate, Democrat
Bill Owens beat back an onslaught from right wingers and tea partiers – including
Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin and Dick Armey – who spoke out on behalf of Conservative
Party candidate Douglas Hoffman and bullied Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava
out of the race.
Owens is the first Democrat elected from that district in well over a century.
In fact, as the web site Politico.com reported, with his victory, “The
GOP lost its fifth consecutive competitive special election in Republican-friendly
As for that independent vote that went for Barack Obama last year and seems
to be shifting back to the right (in New Jersey and Virginia they went for the
GOP candidate by a large margin), it may not be as monolithic a bloc as the
media would have you believe.
Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly blog Political Animal noted a 2007 study
conducted by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and
“Strategists and the media variously describe independents
as ‘swing voters,’ ‘moderates’ or ‘centrists,’ who populate a sometimes undefined
middle of the political spectrum. That is true for some independents, but the
survey revealed a significant range in the attitudes and the behavior of Americans
who adopt the label …
“The survey data established five categories of independents: closet partisans
on the left and right; ticket-splitters in the middle; those disillusioned with
the system but still active politically; ideological straddlers whose positions
on issues draw from both left and right; and a final group whose members are
mostly disengaged from politics.”
Bottom line: Instant analysis of election results from a handful of races in
an off-year election is not very significant one way or the other. We’d be wise
not to buy into the tub thumping or doom saying of pundits posing as priestesses
claiming to speak for the Oracle. Or to be the Oracle.
From a distance here in Athens, perhaps the more balanced headline was the
one that appeared in the International Herald Tribune on Thursday: “Election
Results Give Both Sides Optimism.” The paper could just as easily have
written, “Election Results Give Both Sides Pessimism.” Ask any Athenian
with knowledge of history – you have to take your Oracles with a grain of salt.