Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Polarization of America

In 2009, Barack Obama made numerous, very public attempts to reach across the aisle and enlist the support of Republicans for his initiatives. His attempts at appeasement were fruitless.

At the very least, I think we are seeing that, even if Obama and the Democrats are successful in holding slim majorities in Congress this year, bipartisanship is not going to be a realistic goal for them to pursue in 2011 or 2012. That canyon the parties have created between them is too far for either to reach across.

America has been growing more and more polarized over the years. And, in spite of the protestations from Obama's supporters that he has been uniting the nation, I believe the opposite is true.

It isn't Obama's fault. The polarization of America did not begin with him. But I believe the situation has grown worse since he took office.

It isn't really surprising, I suppose. I mean, if one is a member of a political party, it is because that person has a very definite world view, and there seems to be less and less room for competing views in either party. It was not always this way. There was a time — a fairly lengthy time, actually — when there was a "liberal wing" of the Republican Party and a "conservative wing" of the Democratic Party.

Laugh if you will, but it's true.

In fact, the liberal Republicans exerted considerable influence in their party, as did the conservative Democrats. And each party had quite a few centrists as well.

But the Republicans ran off most of the liberals, and the Democrats ran off most of the conservatives.

Now, centrists are becoming an endangered species in both parties. One left the Republican Party because he believed he would be more welcome with the Democrats, but he lost the primary yesterday. Another has been forced into a runoff against a liberal, apparently type — who probably will beat her in three weeks but then seems likely to lose in the general election.

Many centrists, including myself, have concluded that there is no place for them in either party today so the ones who wish to remain active in the political discourse are choosing to become independents.

But some centrists have insisted on sticking it out in their parties. I wish them well because I really believe that both parties need to move to the middle if they are to be acceptable to mainstream Americans. As things are now, both parties are positioned too far to either extreme to make consensus–building a genuine possibility.

And Tuesday's primaries just provided more proof (to me) that I am right:
  • In Pennsylvania, for example, 30–year Sen. Arlen Specter, who switched parties last year (apparently, at least in part, due to speculation that he could not win a Republican nomination battle this year), lost the Democratic primary to Rep. Joe Sestak.

    Some of Sestak's supporters have characterized him as a centrist, but Specter was the real centrist in the race. In 2008, the ACLU gave Sestak a 91% rating. The American Conservative Union gave him a 0% rating. Meanwhile, Specter got a 43% rating from the ACLU and a 42% rating from the ACU.

    Ratings from other liberal and conservative groups were similar.

    So ideology trumped anything else that Specter brought to the table — seniority, for example — and now Pennsylvanians must choose between an extremely liberal Democrat and an extremely conservative Republican in November. Recent polls have shown the Republican, Pat Toomey, leading by a few points but still short of a clear majority.

    I guess, with Democrats and Republicans tending to favor their own by wide margins in polls, the independents will have to decide the winner — but which side will they choose? They've been gravitating to the center — but there's no one there.

    One thing that seemed clear from the results in Pennsylvania was that Obama's coattails are very short — if they exist at all. Actually, "coattails" probably isn't applicable in a midterm election since that is a term that generally refers to a president's influence on other races when he, too, is on the ballot. Technically, Obama won't have "coattails" until 2012.

    But the concept does seem applicable to a president's influence on races in which he becomes an active participant — although it seems to need a different name. And, when Specter switched parties, Obama pledged to support him this year in gratitude for Specter's support for Obama's agenda. Specter counted on Obama's influence with the Pennsylvania electorate to smooth over his transition.

    Apparently, though, Obama didn't help Specter any more than he helped Martha Coakley in Massachusetts four months ago — or the Democrats who sought the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia last November.

    I guess the big difference is that Coakley and the unsuccessful candidates in New Jersey and Virginia lost to Republicans, which is bad enough for a Democratic president. But Specter lost to a fellow Democrat, which raises questions about Obama's ability to influence the voters in his own party.

    Or does it?

    I suspect that the reasons for Specter's defeat are more complicated. He spent most of the last three decades in the Senate as a Republican — during which time he never really seemed to build a base of support in either party — and 2010 doesn't look like a good year for a Washington insider like Specter to try to reinvent himself in a different party.

    I'm guessing that any efforts he made to persuade lifelong, activist Democrats that he was one of them proved to be a mountain too high.

    Because of Specter's many years in the Republican Party, Obama's support for his unsuccessful campaign in a Democratic primary doesn't seem to be as politically devastating as was his support for a Democrat who lost Ted Kennedy's seat in a Massachusetts special election.

    But winning a party's nomination in Pennsylvania is not the same thing as winning the general election. When I was growing up in Arkansas, winning the Democratic nomination was tantamount to victory most of the time — but not anymore. I don't know if it was ever true in Pennsylvania.

    Anyway, for Sestak there is more work to be done. He is not a senator–elect yet. So, if I were Obama, I think I would have a chat with the vice president and tell him to cool it on that Sestak "will make ... a wonderful United States senator" talk.

    Meanwhile ...

  • Remember Ron Paul, the Libertarian who sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2008? He is said to have the most conservative voting record in Congress in the last 73 years.

    Well, yesterday, the Republicans in Kentucky nominated Paul's son, Rand Paul, a noted Tea Partier, to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Jim Bunning.

    Given Obama's recent track record, it doesn't surprise me that Paul told CNN today that he and his supporters are "licking their chops" at the thought of running against Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, particularly if Obama comes to the Bluegrass State to campaign for him.

  • Finally, my home state of Arkansas, where Sen. Blanche Lincoln was hoping to avoid a runoff against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.

    Lincoln was widely regarded as the centrist in the race while Halter was seen as the liberal. But, instead of taking a majority of the votes, Lincoln narrowly finished ahead of Halter and must defeat him in a runoff in June. A conservative businessman also was in the race, but he finished third with about 14% of the vote.

    Last night, I observed the Facebook exchanges between my friends in Arkansas, many of whom are Democrats who support Halter. They rejoiced that there would be a runoff and gleefully anticipated that most of the third–place candidate's votes would go to Halter. The momentum, they all said, was with him.

    Actually, that brings me to something I wrote on Saturday. I theorized, in essence, that any voter who votes against an incumbent in a primary is more likely to oppose than support that incumbent in a runoff.

    And, if most of the third candidate's voters do vote for Halter on June 8, he will win the runoff. It's simple mathematics.

    Except it isn't so simple. I'm not completely sure about that momentum thing. And I know that participating in a primary does not compel someone to participate in a runoff as well.

    In fact, I know from my own experience of covering Arkansas primaries and runoffs that voter participation typically drops in a runoff.

    But this will be a good test for my theory, as I said the other day, because:
  1. we don't know how many of the third candidate's supporters will be motivated to return to the polls;

  2. we don't know if his supporters — who, it can be logically assumed, are conservatives — are particularly anti–Lincoln; and

  3. if the third candidate's supporters are angry at Lincoln, are they angry enough to vote for a liberal instead of a centrist?
Well, anyway, there are a lot of factors at play here.

And I'm sure there will be a lot of attention paid to the Arkansas runoff in the next three weeks.

I don't know what will happen in Arkansas in June, but I think the centrist would have a better chance of beating the conservative there in November than the liberal would. The problem for centrists is that most don't seem to have a base in their own party.

Like Republican Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah, who got kicked out by a bunch of extremist delegates to the state's Republican convention. He's a conservative, but apparently not enough of one for Utah's red–meat right–wingers. Remember those ACLU and ACU ratings I mentioned earlier? In 2008, Bennett got a 14% from the ACLU and a 64% from the ACU (by comparison, his colleague, Orrin Hatch, got a 21% from the ACLU and an 80% from the ACU).

By Utah's Republican standards, I guess that makes him a centrist.

All of which leads me to conclude that incumbency isn't really the problem in 2010 — centrism is.

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