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Swingtime for Obama

The core of the argument, though, really comes down to attitudes about one of the key points of Washington conventional wisdom in our age of dysfunction and polarization—the idea that “both sides,” liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, are more or less equally to blame for our problems. Centrists tend to agree that this is the case. Liberals scoff at the idea that, according to one often-heard cliché, “both parties are captive to their extremes.” On liberal blogs this is mocked as “High Broderism,” after David Broder, the late Washington Post columnist who spent years writing columns wagging his finger at both sides.

Broder’s general view remains an article of faith among some commentators, expressed perhaps out of a need to appear to be “fair.” It may have been true twenty years ago. Today, any such claim that both sides are equally guilty is nonsense that requires willful ignorance of the evidence. The most irrefutable data come from the political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal, who have done the unglamorous work of charting nearly every roll-call vote in the history of Congress. Poole, of the University of Georgia, told me for a Daily Beast piece earlier this year:

What is accurate to say, beyond doubt, is that the Republicans have moved out to the right very fast, while the Democrats have drifted to the left, maybe, but nowhere close to what the Republicans have done.5

Poole’s view is confirmed by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein in their new book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,6 in which these two judicious congressional scholars argue that they once accepted the both-sides argument but now conclude that the GOP is the more obstreperous party, implacably opposing anything that might result in a political benefit for the Democrats—a tax on carbon in the atmosphere, say, which even ExxonMobil supports, but which Republicans will never consider because passing it would represent a big victory for Obama’s agenda.

This disagreement is important because how one sizes up the problem has major implications for policy—what Democrats should be willing to do to appease the swing voter. There are the questions of Social Security and Medicare, and others besides. How far should Democrats go in reducing benefits? On budget cuts? On seeming “reasonable”? Obama tried seeming reasonable last year, when the Republicans refused to raise the debt ceiling, breaking a long-standing consensus. The White House’s strategy of offering concessions was aimed specifically at swing voters. Obama walked away from the mess with lower poll numbers, even among voters in the middle, who thought he looked weak. Swing voters, then, might be a little more mysterious than the experts think.

Linda Killian, in her acknowledgments in The Swing Vote, writes a tribute to Broder, who, she says, “was a mentor and friend to me.” She is a committed member of the both-sides caucus. She writes a few too many foggy sentences like “It would continue to prove difficult for Republicans and Democrats to transcend party politics and work together,” and while she criticizes Republicans for their refusal to raise taxes and for other failings, she takes care to balance out that criticism with reproaches of Obama for not being able to end partisanship, as if he has not tried. Finally, she overstates the extent to which there exists out there in the heartland an army of agitated citizens who ache for a moderate alternative to the two parties.

All that said, The Swing Voter has useful observations. Killian, a former NPR reporter who is now a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, emulated the admirable part of Broder’s legacy and traveled around the country interviewing hundreds of voters who are disaffected. There are lessons to be learned from her reporting.

She identifies four types of independent voters. (1) “NPR Republicans” are “fiscal conservatives who are moderate or libertarian on social issues.” They have been moving away from the GOP because of the religious right. (2) The “Facebook Generation” is mostly thirty-five or under; its members are generally social liberals (on the environment or race), but “this age group doesn’t really trust either political party and doesn’t understand why it can’t have more political choices.” (3) The “Starbucks Moms and Dads” are “a fickle group who don’t mind changing party allegiance” from election to election and “tend to be fiscally conservative and socially moderate, concerned about education, national security, and environmental issues.” Finally (4), the “America First Democrats,” concentrated in the Rust Belt, support strong defense, are populist on economic issues such as trade and protectionism, but are “more traditional and conservative on social issues than they perceive the Democratic Party to be.”

Killian chooses one state that is emblematic of each of the groups—respectively, New Hampshire, Colorado, Virginia, and Ohio. She talks with politicians from both parties—moderate Republican state legislators in New Hampshire chased from their party’s ranks, Democrats like the Virginia Senator Jim Webb, retiring after just one term partly out of disgust—who dissent from some party positions. She speaks with voters like Julia Pfaff of Fairfax County, Virginia, a former Army captain married to an active-duty military man, whose comments could stand for a good many others:

I’m part of this huge group of Americans who feel disenfranchised. We don’t like where we’re headed. It’s like we’re riding on a bus, and the two parties are the drivers who are arguing over who gets to control the steering wheel. Meanwhile, there’s a cliff in front of us and we’re headed straight for it. The rest of us are stuck in the back of the bus, saying, “There’s a cliff up there, do something.”

There is no question that millions of Americans share Pfaff’s frustration. The “cliff” suggests bad, or very bad, economic prospects. But there is a question whether these millions can in fact become an organized political unit, and indeed whether—given their own very clear differences with one another, which Killian herself describes well—they even want to be. There was a group this year called Americans Elect that was designed precisely to speak to disillusioned moderates and let them pick a presidential ticket outside of the party-led primary-and-caucus process. Its campaign was announced with great fanfare and was well funded. It featured an eminent and bipartisan board of advisers, including Michael Eisner and Christine Todd Whitman. It even secured a ballot line in twenty-seven states (usually the biggest impediment to third-party efforts because the logistics are nightmarish). This was the project that was going to rouse Linda Pfaff and people like her to take up their pikes.

What happened? On May 15, Americans Elect CEO Kahlil Byrd announced that “no candidate has reached the national support threshold required to enter the ‘Americans Elect Online Convention’ this June.” That is, not enough people voted online. The group’s main problem was that it couldn’t persuade any truly prominent politicians to seek its nomination. It cast its line out for some pretty big fish—Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Condoleezza Rice, and Joe Lieberman, for example. But no one bit.

One hears Bloomberg’s name in particular from certain members of our elite political class. He is a moderate, and he could run as an independent and spend a billion dollars if he wanted to. But the idea that he could accomplish anything—other than ensuring the election of the Republican candidate—is fantasy. In our current climate, about 40 percent of the electorate is very conservative and would vote for Sarah Palin. All Bloomberg, or anyone, would do is split the remaining 60 percent. So this is a plan that would reward the very people who are the main cause of the problem.

One far-reaching solution to our problems seems simple—although there is no sign that it will be done—encouraging and electing more moderate Republicans, who would be more willing to legislate and compromise as in the old days, making bipartisan coalitions a reality and even overcoming the specter of the filibuster on all but the most contentious issues. The Senate now has about seventeen or eighteen moderate Democrats. If that body had anywhere near the same number of genuine moderate Republicans, instead of the two or three it has now, our politics would be very different indeed; so would they if the House had forty or fifty moderate Republicans, instead of the small handful it has now. We wouldn’t be up against a brick wall on taxes, which Republicans refuse to raise under any circumstances, and there would be more than enough moderate legislators from both parties to work out compromises on the major issues of the day. It might seem a simple solution but it is not. The GOP is still galloping in the direction of becoming more extreme, and moderate billionaires seem less interested in investing in this hard work than do their right-wing counterparts.

In the meantime, Obama and Romney will battle for the different groups of disaffected citizens. Each leads among independents in different recent polls, depending on whether the issue of the moment is the worrisome economy or conservative attacks on contraception. No one expects that Obama will repeat his eight-point margin among independents in 2008. He doesn’t need to in order to be reelected, but he probably must win among them.

While gay marriage will matter, the main thing will be the economy. Here, the ideas that Obama has emphasized since his big speech in Kansas last fall—of fairness, of making the rich pay their share in taxes—seem more aimed at the Democratic base than at swing voters. And Romney, since securing the nomination, has made no gesture to centrist voters that I can see—he has merely benefited by not having to argue any longer with Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. So neither side has conceived of an argument to win the swing vote.

Each has, however, begun to fashion attacks on the other side that they hope will persuade the undecideds. Romney will portray Obama as unequipped to revive the economy and cut the deficit. Obama will paint Romney as an elitist who will bring back supply-side policies with a vengeance. Romney benefits from a broad perception that he isn’t really as conservative as he acted during the primaries. Obama will try to persuade swing voters that Romney is that conservative, or at least that he isn’t his own man and will do the far right’s bidding, and the outcome may well turn on whether he can make that case.

  1. 5

    See “Michael Tomasky on the GOP ’s Rush to the Right in Congress,” The Daily Beast, February 1, 2012. 

  2. 6

    Basic Books, May 2012. 

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