Everything and nothing happened on Tuesday. I could have predicted that. Whoever "wins" says it means everything. Whoever "loses" says it means nothing. That's how off-off-year elections work. History supports both sides.
This time, the Republicans managed to claw at least a little bit of defeat from the jaws of victory with their act of self-destruction in New York-23. As everyone in the world now knows, a district that has been Republican since the Civil War is sending a Democrat to Congress on account of the intrusion of Republican Party leaders in the form of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, quickly followed by everyone (else) who wants to be president.
Nancy Pelosi, up one for the night, claimed victory. The president's spokesman, contradicting the steady refrain of Republicans, said New Jersey and Virginia had absolutely nothing to do with the president.
In a way, that's true, which is not good for Democrats.
What Obama defenders have pointed out repeatedly and rightly is that the president remains popular in both of the states Republicans won on Tuesday — more popular, unfortunately for them, than the two Democrats who, especially Jon Corzine, sought a boost from his coattails.
There was no boost. The Obama "voters" did not turn out. And some of those who did voted Republican this time.
I've worked with Corzine campaigns in the past. They know how to "do field," that is, to find and bring out every last voter in the state who could be identified. Corzine had issues with his voters independent of the president, starting with taxes. Still, press secretary Robert Gibbs is right. In New Jersey, the gap between Corzine's numbers and the president's is the difference between defeat and victory. Nothing the president, or a great field organization benefiting from his, could do could deliver that vote.
Not good news if you got elected two years ago in part because the president was on top of the ticket.
It's a long, long time, politically speaking, between now and the next time Barack Obama has to run. That's good news for the president, but not so good for those who could use some fairy dust. It means members of Congress in marginal districts are essentially on their own.
And that makes healthcare even trickier, if that could be possible.
On the one hand, the pressure on Democrats to support the president will, if anything, be more intense now than it has been. He needs them more. The House leadership needs to deliver. Rahm Emanuel needs to deliver. Allowing healthcare reform to get close, only to be killed amid claims that the plan was the wrong one, is a movie whose ending we've lived through once. It's not one anyone would like to see again, on the Democratic side.
On the other hand, you could be in real trouble with voters in your district, especially independents, if you're seen as supporting an unpopular reform effort because Pelosi squeezed you to keep you in line. Not good, either. I don't know too many marginal members who are eager to see their re-elections turn into a referendum on healthcare reform.
It may be too late, and it certainly isn't anyone's style here, but the real lesson of New York-23 may be about the risks of allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good.
Shooting inside the tent cost the Republicans a ridiculously safe seat. Democrats are capable of doing the same. They need to pass a healthcare plan that won't cost the Democratic majority that majority, or the whole effort could blow up in the president's face. Just in time for him to be on the top of the ballot. And then it could mean everything to him.