Monday, September 21, 2009

The 'R Word' Isn't What You Think it Is

While those on the left insist on fanning the flames of racism and those on the right are equally insistent that race is not a factor in their opposition to Obama administration policies, a few people do seem to grasp what is really at stake — the future of the political realignment that left–leaning Americans believed had begun in 2006 and 2008.

Last week, Brent Budowsky pondered the prospects for realignment in The Hill. With more than 40% of Americans identifying themselves as independents, Budowsky writes, "Realignment is dead. President Barack Obama and Democrats blew it. Dealignment has arrived. Republicans blew it, and are now so repellent that Americans increasingly reject both political parties."

That supports something I have heard frequently — that neither party is really interested in the problems of ordinary Americans, that what politicians on both ends of the spectrum really care about is being re–elected, and a new party is needed.

But that isn't an original theme in American politics. Didn't we hear much the same thing when Ross Perot ran for president in 1992? Wasn't that a big part of George Wallace's message when, as an independent candidate for president in 1968, he carried five states after arguing that there wasn't "a dime's worth of difference" between the two parties and nearly sent the presidential selection to the House of Representatives?

In fact, these cries for a new political party have been amplified from time to time since the Democrats and Republicans emerged as the major parties in the mid–19th century. The cries seem to be louder when circumstances are bad — and most people appear to agree that things haven't been this bad — economically, anyway — since the Great Depression.

Those who have studied the history of political trends in America aren't surprised by periodic calls for a new party. But neither should they be surprised by the re–emergence of established trends — nor should they conclude that those trends have any special significance.

Which is why I was bemused to read Fred Barnes' piece in the Wall Street Journal the other day.

"Virginia has been kind to Democrats as of late," Barnes wrote, "[b]ut now the Democratic tide is ebbing in Virginia. In January Mr. Obama's approval rating was 62%, according to a Survey USA. By August it had fallen to 42%."

Barnes, a conservative commentator, observed that the Republican candidate leads the Democratic candidate in polls regarding this year's gubernatorial campaign. He wrote hopefully about the possibility that a Republican triumph in November "will demonstrate that 2008 may have been an aberration." But that, to me, is like comparing apples and oranges.

I don't know what the vote in Virginia will say about attitudes toward Obama and his policies. At the moment, I'm not inclined to think there are any conclusions to be drawn — unless either side wins by a landslide.

If the Republican wins in Virginia, I don't think it will necessarily suggest that Obama's coalition has crumbled. I think it is more likely to confirm what I wrote about four months ago — that the party that loses the presidency wins the governor's office in Virginia the next year.

Admittedly, Obama accomplished something unusual for Democratic presidential nominees when he carried Virginia last year. He was the first Democrat to do so since 1964 — and he was the first non–incumbent Democrat to carry the state since Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.

But the gubernatorial trend seems to function independently of the state's preference in presidential politics. Nominees of both parties have won the governor's office in the last 32 years — including Doug Wilder, the first black elected governor in any state — even though Virginia voted for Republican presidential candidates in 10 straight elections before voting for Obama last year.

If Democrat Creigh Deeds wins the election in six weeks, that may be a tangible sign that a realignment is taking place. But if Republican Bob McDonnell wins, it would be wrong to assume that it indicates anything more than business as usual.

And if the theory of realignment is dealt a setback in next year's midterm elections, it would be a serious mistake for Democrats to assume it is due to racism. It will be an indication that another political trend is alive and well, one I wrote about last month.

A president's party almost always takes it on the chin in the midterms. Obama knows what will minimize those losses — job creation — and claims he asks his economic advisers about job creation regularly. But promises he made on the campaign trail appear to have been abandoned in favor of political expedience.

Well, the nation is fast approaching a 10% unemployment rate — something with which more than a dozen states already are dealing. Unless there is clear improvement in the next six months, Obama's party is likely to lose ground in Congress in 2010.

Talk of a realignment will fade — and racism will have little, if anything, to do with it, regardless of how each side chooses to spin it.

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