The Rorschach Test

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Matt Rourke / AP

In the days leading up to Tuesday's electoral extravaganza--which featured heated Senate primaries in Kentucky, Arkansas, and Pennsylvania, plus a bellwether special election in the Keystone State's 12th District--the national political press struggled to find a fitting name for the event. "Turbulent Tuesday" was Politico's pick. "Incumbent Armageddon" was The Fix's. 

For awhile, I stayed out of the debate. But now that the results have finally come rolling in, I feel confident that there's only one phrase that accurately captures what happened at the polls today:

The Rorschach Test. 

That's right: the old psychological evaluation that involves showing inkblots to subjects and asking them to describe what they're looking at. In this case, the inkblots were the day's marquee election contests--and the subjects were political partisans on both the right and the left. Everyone sees what he wants to see.

Conservatives will be inclined to interpret the day as a ringing repudiation of President Obama's "socialist" policies and a sharp turn toward small-government Tea Party-ism. They will do this because, in Kentucky, the candidate of small-government Tea Party-ism, Rand Paul, trounced Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a corporate lawyer who was endorsed by some of the biggest names in the party (Dick Cheney, Mitch McConnell).

Liberals, on the other hand, will be inclined to interpret the day as a welcome sign that the country isn't actually angry at Democrats and that the Congressional losses they're fated to suffer in November won't be nearly as bad as the pundits have predicted. They will do this because Democratic turnout in Kentucky was much higher than expected, while in Pennsylvania, pure-bred progressive underdog Joe Sestak came from behind to unseat recent Democratic convert Arlen Specter and Mark Critz, a Democrat, upset Tim Burns, a Republican, to win the late Rep. Jack Murtha's spot in the House.

Needless to say, both of these interpretations can't be true at the same time.

My friends in the mainstream media won't be immune to the temptation of seeing what they want to see, either. Because Specter and Blanche Lincoln, who was forced into a runoff with Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in Arkansas for failing secure 50 percent of the vote, are both incumbents--and because the press tends to shoehorn even the most multifaceted news event into a simple narrative--they will interpret Tuesday as yet another "kick the bums out" moment, a la Bob Bennett in Utah and Alan Mollohan in West Virginia. Expect to hear a lot of chatter about how the country is in an "anti-establishment mood" and "Washington has been put on notice."

But by distilling Tuesday into whatever form is easiest for the distiller to digest, none of these interpretations--all of which have their grains of truth--really do the day justice.

Yes, Paul won big because--not in spite--of his authentic anti-government philosophy, which calls for doing away with

As for Democrats: yes, a pair of victories for the more liberal contenders in Pennsylvania--Sestak and Critz--is something to crow about. But Sestak's win probably says more about Specter's pronounced weaknesses as a Democratic candidate--a long Republican record; a history of opportunism; no real reason for running--than the national mood. In the right-leaning 12th, Critz's win was impressive, and given that it was the only race of the night that actually previewed November's key contests--a Democrat vs. a Republican in a swing district--it was probably the most revealing. Still, Critz won because he had strong union support in a low-turnout race--and he said he would've voted against health care reform. Unless Dems think they can recreate these conditions everywhere else, they should probably keep their expectations for November relatively low.

If one storyline could accurately encapsulate all of Tuesday's proceedings, the press would probably be right: the establishment is in trouble. As I wrote on Monday, "whatever economic recovery we're currently supposed to be experiencing hasn't really trickled down to Main Street. Most ordinary Americans are still stuck in the Great Recession... And so, as poll after poll has shown, they are angry, agitated, and restless. They blame the establishment, the insiders, the Beltway types, the incumbents--the people who are in charge." That's a major reason why Specter lost, why Lincoln didn't hit 50 percent, and why Grayson couldn't catch Paul.

But it's not the entire reason. In Pennsylvania, Critz--a former Murtha aide and a member of the same party as the president--was the establishment pick, and he managed to defeat an outsider Republican. Meanwhile, a bunch of incumbents won in Oregon. At the end of the day, the only thing Tuesday's Rorschach Test really proved, yet again, is that all politics is local--even when it's national as well. Regardless of the larger forces at work, elections are ultimately all about specific candidates in specific environments. In this case, the strongest candidates won. Whether they'll be the strongest candidates in November--that is, whether their victories on Tuesday will eventually alter the composition of Congress and change the direction of the country--remains to be seen.

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