Following a long summer recess spent navigating heavily astro-turfed town halls and trying to bring yappy Blue Dogs to heel, President Obama finds himself barely clinging to a piss-poor public option on health insurance (after preemptively tossing single-payer aside) and his once-formidible public approval rating. More ominously, the GOP (and its once seemingly irrevelvant wingnut media proxies) has regained control of the malleable DC media narrative, with usefully idiotic outlets like Politico dutifully playing stenographer while chronicling the (as-yet-unfulfilled) Republican ascendancy. With what Michael Tomasky calls “a high-stakes address” on health care reform from Obama only hours away, one must reflect on why, after decisively winning what many at the time called a ‘transformative’ general election, the Democratic Party is now fighting for its political life.
Conventional beltway wisdom on how to survive as a mainstream political entity is as follows: Appeal to the centre, courting noble independents and so-called ‘moderates’; electoral success hinges on support from the unaligned mushy middle.
Sounds exactly like what the old white blowhards on Hardball are constantly yammering on about, right?
Well, don’t buy it.
In a TNR piece published in 2006, Thomas B. Edsall debunked the myth of the centrist swing voter as nonpartisan kingmaker, noting that most so-called independents are actually rather, well, partisan:
In late 2000, even as the result of the presidential election was still being contested in court, George W. Bush’s chief pollster Matt Dowd was writing a memo for Rove that would reach a surprising conclusion. Based on a detailed examination of poll data from the previous two decades, Dowd’s memo argued that the percentage of swing voters had shrunk to a tiny fraction of the electorate. Most self-described “independent” voters “are independent in name only,” Dowd told me in an interview describing his memo. “Seventy-five percent of independents vote straight ticket” for one party or the other. Once such independents are reclassified as Democrats or Republicans, a key trend emerges: Between 1980 and 2000, the percentage of true swing voters fell from a very substantial 24 percent of the electorate to just 6 percent. In other words, the center was literally disappearing. Which meant that, instead of having every incentive to govern as “a uniter, not a divider,” Bush now had every reason to govern via polarization. This ran counter to Rove’s previous thinking. In 2000, he had dismissed the tactic of running on divisive issues like patriotism, crime, and welfare as “an old paradigm.” And Bush had followed his advice by explicitly reaching out to the center-left. For instance, during the campaign, he held a press conference with a dozen gay Republicans and sharply criticized the GOP Congress for a plan to save money by slowing distribution of tax credits for the working poor. But Dowd’s memo changed all that.
Republicans know that investing in polarization, not aisle-crossing bipartisan capitulation, pays dividends — it’s why they haven’t been afraid to break out barely-muted racist dog whistles and fall back on appeals to naked fear of all-powerful government intervention (Death panels! FEMA camps! ACORN!) Rather than moving to the (constantly shifting) centre, which some talking heads have suggested is key to a return from the wilderness, the GOP has instead gone hard right, doing its goddamndest to engage/fire up its conservative base, especially those wayward souls who last year stopped publicly identifying as Republicans and, in some cases, voted for Obama or, more often than not, simply stayed home (and, most importantly, didn’t donate to the RNC). What the GOP is trying to do with their seemingly self-destructive obstruction uber alles strategy is simple: work the base into a free-spending fever pitch while simultaneously demoralizing Democrats and disengaging skeptical independents (an effort aided quite handily by ineffectual leadership in both Congress and the White House, both deeply in thrall with the oracular advice imparted by those self-appointed soothsayers of Byzantine Washington protocol, the DC punditocracy and press).
The GOP aren’t concerned if ill-defined centrists/independents are (purportedly) turned off by gauche appeals to right-wing base impulse. If centrists/indies are dispelled from participation in the political process (ie, by not voting for/donating to ANYONE) and the GOP’s white, red state evangelical base does show up (angry, inspired and with checkbooks in hand) the Republicans stand to gain in 2010 (and, hopefully, 2012). Republicans don’t give a rat’s ass if centrists/indies swing to the GOP or not, as long as they don’t vote for the Democrats.
Furthermore, by discarding the strong change mandate voters handed them last November, the current Democratic leadership has done absolutely nothing to give the general public–especially left-leaning Democratic partisans–a reason to renew their current lease on Congress (much less the White House).
I’ll give the GOP one thing: they know when to throw hunks of bloody red meat to the more voracious animals that reside under the increasingly constrained boundaries of the Republican “big tent.” By comparison, the treatment progressives receive from the Democratic Party (perfectly encapsulated by the ritual purge of one of the few actual progressives in the White House, “Green Czar” Van Jones) is largely based on thinly-veiled top-down contempt. Recent rumblings from certain progressive circles about sitting on their check-scrawling hands and staying home in 2010 perfectly illustrate why you don’t brazenly and repeatedly spit in the faces of the ones who brought you to the goddamn dance in the first place.
When will the Democratic Party give its long-forsaken liberal partisans something to chew on (even if it risks staining its collective hands bright crimson)?