The folks who swing elections

By Alan Bean

According to this article in the Washington Post, Republican attempts to demonize House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have been unsuccessful . . . until this election year.

Let me say up front that I have no opinion of Ms. Pelosi one way or the other.  I find her nervous smile unconvincing, but I don’t blame her for smiling or for being nervous.  What interests me here is the power of oft-repeated talking points in hard financial times.  Ms. Pelosi’s job is primarily to negotiate behind the scenes while trying to rally Democrats behind the party line.  She isn’t responsible for shaping policy; she’s a cheerleader and a professional compromiser.  That’s her role.  So why have her “strongly disapprove” numbers risen from a modest 17% to a startling 41%. 

Two reasons: one, times are tough and voters are always inclined to blame the folks in power; two, Republicans and Tea Party activists have been telling us that Pelosi is a very bad person.  We aren’t told why she is bad; apparently it’s supposed to be self-evident.  That’s how the demonization game  works.  If you argue that Speaker Pelosi is a child of hell because she supports specific legislative initiatives, you shift attention from personality to policy.  Republicans realize that, when times are tough, you simply point the finger and scream, “this lady consorts with Satan!”

And then there is poor Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate who just might be defeated by Sharon Angle, the most inept and self-destructive candidate in America.  Ms. Angle wants to eliminate the Departments of energy and education.  She wants to take America out of the United Nations.  She suggests that if this election doesn’t go her way it will be time for “second amendment remedies”.  In other words, she is talking armed insurrection.  Treason used to be a hanging offense; now it passes for patriotism.

Again, it’s hard to get fired up about Harry Reid, an avuncular deal-maker who wins elections by bringing the bacon home for Nevada.  Now that his home state is in a severe economic tailspin, half the electorate (perhaps more) appears willing to support a Tea Party candidate so wildly unpredictable her handlers no longer allow her to speak to the press.

Like Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid is widely denounced as a son of perdition.  It is hard to imagine two more flexible, realistic and accommodating politicians than Reid and Pelosi.  They understand that politics is a numbers game.  This makes them political chameleons skilled in the art of the possible. They go along to get along.  These qualities explain their political success; so why have they suddenly become pariahs?  The economy alone can’t explain why a politician’s negative numbers would suddenly explode.  

At the close of his Rally to Restore Sanity, Jon Stewart blamed cable news for handing the microphone to the loudest and most obnoxious people in the room.  Fair enough, but in an age of political entertainment, there is little demand for sober analysis.  We meet two kinds of people on TV news; loud, opinionated blowhards skilled in the arts of hyperbole and character assassination, and cautious, even-handed reporters desperate to avoid the appearance of partisan bias.  The latter group never say anything memorable–you can’t make a clear, declarative statement without taking sides.  The fulminators, on the other hand, make statements designed to inspire love or hatred–and they don’t really care which.

When, exactly, have American politics been sane?

You see a similar trend in televised football games during the half-time show.  The experts (most of them retired players and coaches) are increasingly inclined to call out the coaches for making bone-headed decisions, question the refereeing, and denigrate the character of individual players.  Voices get loud.  Hands gesture wildly.  Spectacular inter-expert disagreements erupt.  That’s entertainment.

When conservative politicians denounce Nancy Pelosi as a daughter of the evil one, you get three responses from the media.  Liberal pundits ignore this talk because they are more interested in denouncing scoundrels on the right.  Conservative pundits dutifully join in the Pelosi-bashing–that’s what they are paid to do.  Meanwhile, the balanced, neutral folks check out the polls and report that Ms. Pelosi’s negative numbers have been rising of late.   It is in nobody’s interest to defend the poor woman. 

This is a bi-partisan phenomenon.  It explains why the popularity ratings of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney fell so precipitously during the last two years of the last administration.  It was in the Democrats interest to blame Bush-Cheney for the ills of America.  By trying to shift the focus to McCain-Palin, the Republicans hung their old leaders out to dry. 

The same weary process undermines public policy initiatives.  Support for health care reform has been dropping steadily.  While Republicans denounce “Obamacare” as socialism (or fascism), Democrats struggle to change the subject.  Progressives down the Obama administration for selling out to the insurance companies.  The end result is that nobody is talking about the manifold merits of health care reform. 

The media, desperate to appear neutral, puts up a poll showing support for health care reform going south.

The Colbert-Stewart rally attracted an enormous crowd to the National Mall.  But the folks who flocked to hear the Comedy Central comedians, like the Tea Party faithful who turned out for Glenn and Sarah a few months earlier, represent disaffected, dependable minority groups.  The Beck people and the Colbert-Stewart people will largely cancel each another’s votes.  This election will be decided by uncommitted independents who spend very little time watching television news.  This group blows with the political wind.  They are always looking for change.  It is the voters who jumped on the Obama bandwagon in 2008 and are now swayed by Tea Party anger who will swing this election. 

Are there really people out there who could vote for Obama in 2008 and a Tea Party candidate in 2010?  Sure there are.  We get so used to watching the true-believer partisans battle it out on cable news that we forget that most Americans are politically unsophisticated.  The average person is a nebulous blend of fuzzy conservative and liberal impulses.  Most of us end up leaning in one direction or the other, but elections are decided by voters who are unreflective and ill-informed.  These people want to live in a fair, equitable, post-racial America.  On the other hand, they are brimming with resentment for illegal aliens, welfare cheats, Muslims, and people who buy more house than they can afford. 

The eternally “undecided” voter can be swayed by conservative and progressive impulses and generally supports the party that can generate the highest enthusiasm quotient.  They don’t watch a lot of political television but they get a vague sense of who’s hot and who’s not and pull the lever accordingly.  Neither side of our great American culture war can trust the uncommitted center.  These folks aren’t conservative, liberal or moderate; they are ignorant and disengaged. 

Conservatives are doing exceptionally well during this election cycle because they have broken their political philosophy into a small number of easily digested ideas: small government anti-communism, trickle-down supply-side economics, etc.  The unreflective undecideds embrace these ideas because they are undemanding and ubiquitous.  Progressives are great at debunking conservative talking points, but have no talking points of their own.  No one was fooled by the allegedly apolitical nature of the Stewart-Colbert extravaganza–well over 90% of those in attendance lean to the left.  And yet the message was always couched in cautious, uber-rational, bi-partisan terms, as if taking a stand for health care reform or an aggressive jobs program was considered . . . tacky. 

It was almost as if, as one frustrated liberal put it, the message was “when the going gets tough, the tough get ironic.”  Irony is terrific, but it never won an election.  Swing voters wouldn’t know irony if it bit them . . . (but if it did that, it would cease to be ironic).

Until liberals agree on a simple, easily articulated consensus they will lose more elections than they win.  So long as Democratic candidates campaign on an ill-defined brand of inclusive optimism, hard issues like race, the war on drugs, mass incarceration and real immigration reform will be excluded from the American conversation.