The political ‘lay-of-the-land’ in the United States has transformed incredibly in the last three or four years. The pundits and politicos are working themselves into a froth trying to figure out, define, and—yes—control what is happening in this country. All of the old rules seem to be breaking down, with long-time Republican Party insiders finding themselves ousted in the primaries by supposedly ‘radical’ firebrands and seats that have been held by Democrats for decades suddenly in-play and under Republican threat. How did we get here? How did everything change so much and so fast?
There are two main elements at play here, both of which have served to aid the Republican Party in this election cycle though it remains to be seen whether it will continue to do so. The first element is an internal struggle within the Republican Party which has gone on for many years, but has only recently risen to prominence among the outside punditry. The second element is a sea-change, entirely in the last two years, in how the great middle perceives each of our two major political parties.
Republican Party Internal Reform
Despite all the blather over his eight-year presidency, George W. Bush (R) was not the radical right-wing ideologue that his opponents made him out to be. Stinging from Bush’s razor-thin victory over Vice President Al Gore (D) in 2000—a historic election rife with controversy—the political opposition very quickly embarked on an effort to cast the Bush administration as a cabal of hyperactive right-wing psychopaths. The facts simply do not back up this characterization. For example, before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Bush’s main policy accomplishment was the No Child Left Behind law—a law he crafted with ‘liberal lion’ Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) that went on to pass both houses of Congress with broad bipartisan support. Yeah, you’ve got to watch out for those radical right-wing extremists and their bipartisan education bills!
George W. Bush was, in most matters of domestic policy, a centrist. Up until the Iraq War became unpopular, almost everything Bush did had wide support from his Democratic ‘opposition.’ Even the Iraq War Resolution of 2002 passed with the support of 82 Democratic members of the House of Representatives and 29 Democratic Senators. Bush was loathe to offend the Congress or stymie its spending initiatives, even when his party lost the majority in the House, and only used his veto power eleven times in eight years—compared to President Bill Clinton’s (D) 36 vetoes in his eight years, or President George H.W. Bush’s (R) 29 vetoes during his single four-year term.
The last president to veto fewer bills than Bush was President Warren Harding (R). Harding made five vetoes before dying of a heart attack only two-and-a-half years into his Presidency in 1923.
The fact of the matter is that most conservatives, myself included, didn’t like George W. Bush very much. The only place where he exhibited any real, strong, conservative leadership was on matters of national security; it’s really only on the basis of his national security and foreign policy positions (with an occasional ‘social issue’ thrown in) that the Democratic opposition demonized him. Most criticism directed at Bush from the ‘left’ revolved around his poor English language skills and his supposed resemblance to a monkey. In most domestic policy matters, he was practically indistinguishable from a Democrat. His presidency was marked with big deficits and expansions of federal authorities and entitlements, and he made no real effort to improve government efficiency or eliminate pointless programs. He did a reasonably good job of sounding like a conservative around elections and in his State of the Union addresses, but the grand conservative programs he promised in these contexts—fixing our complex, unfair, re-distributive tax code and reforming Social Security, for example—simply never materialized, even when his own party had complete control of the Congress.
Bush was, in many respects, the ‘last straw’ for actual conservatives in this country. For almost eighty years our federal government has been accumulating more and more powers and authorities at the expense of the states and the people, and it has done so under both Republican and Democratic leaders. Conservatives were, and remain, fed-up. Much of the Republican Party ‘base’ threw their hands up in frustration and walked away, which is no small part of why Senator John McCain (R-AZ) lost his presidential bid. The ‘base’ didn’t care much if he won or not, since he was a supporter of the Bush Bailout Bonanza and Bush deficits just like now-President Barack Obama (D) was. With a choice between ‘socialism’ and ‘socialism-lite,’ many conservatives simply stayed home.
The conservative base—the real believers in a limited government, balanced budget, and so on—were faced with a few choices in the aftermath of the 2008 Republican implosion. They could quit politics all together on the argument that both parties were clearly trying to destroy the country; they could continue to vote for the establishment Republicans on the argument that they were at least nominally better than the other options; or they could re-take their party and re-align it with the conservative values they believe in. They are, apparently, choosing the latter of the three.
Bear in mind that we’re not talking about some tiny band of radicals here. Our national political demographic divides roughly into thirds: 1/3 of Americans are conservatives who believe in a tightly limited federal government, economic and personal freedom, and individual self-sufficiency (this is, basically, where I fall); 1/3 are liberals who believe in an active and largely-unlimited federal government that provides for everybody’s needs; and 1/3 are centrists who fall on some spectrum in-between. Again these are very rough approximations, and the labels don’t really do justice to either of the three, but for the sake of simplicity I will refer to them here as ‘conservatives,’ ‘liberals,’ and ‘centrists.’
For the last decade or so, the Democratic Party has catered to liberals with its arguments for massive federal entitlements and expansions of federal authority, and those candidates with these liberal views have received their party’s support and funding and have risen through the leadership ranks. Meanwhile, the Republican Party has primarily fielded and promoted centrists who cater to a middle ground of some entitlements and and some regulation and some states’ and individual rights and supposedly-necessary deficits and so on. There was no ideology here at all, just a constant attempt to be ‘electable.’ The false assumption was that conservatives would always vote Republican, so the party needed only to cater to the centrists who might go either way. This approach rarely works for long, since the base of liberals or conservatives will always eventually tire of voting for candidates who don’t share their principles (and centrists will eventually tire of voting for panderers too).
Despite all the constant talk about the Republican Party swinging to the ‘extreme right,’ the fact is that the conservative 1/3 of the electorate has gone for decades without real representation in the supposedly-conservative political party. We’ve had one party somewhere to the center-right (Republicans), and a liberal party somewhere out to the left (Democrats). If you somehow averaged out their positions, the center of the U.S. political party spectrum landed in the center-left while the actual political center in the United States is, basically, in the middle. That the so-called ‘Tea Party’ movement is moving the Republican Party to the right is not a ‘radicalization’ of the party, it’s simply getting it to shift back to ideology instead of a mindless (and idea-less) mantra of ‘electability.’ This will re-center our political party spectrum right back over the actual electorate’s center, which is where it ought to be.
Might this reduce the Republican Party’s electability? Perhaps, in some places, but even many centrists will likely be glad to have a choice between candidates who have some competing ideas and ideologies, rather than between one ideologue and a mindless panderer. For the 1/3 of the electorate who actually believes in the ideals of conservatism, they’ll be thrilled to finally be able to vote for conservatives who share their views. All-in-all, the renewed Republican focus on ideas and ideals brought about by the ‘Tea Party’ movement is a good thing for American politics. More importantly, getting some politicians who actually believe in balanced budgets, reductions in federal spending, and an end to (or at least reform of) our broken entitlement systems will be the best possible thing for getting an economic recovery under-way—and this would be largely impossible in the current environment without this internal Republican reform.
The Perceptions of the Middle
As discussed above, the American electorate roughly breaks into thirds. The conservative third, for a long time, has voted Republican. The liberal third, for just as long, has voted Democrat. The final third, the centrists, are the wild card. On average, the centrists decide elections—especially at the presidential level, but also in most competitive Congressional elections.
Calling this group ‘centrists’ is really an oversimplification (made out of necessity), because this group is the most ideologically diverse of the three. It includes many people who register as Republicans and Democrats, but are less ideologically ‘pure’ (i.e., are more ‘moderate’) than their brethren and are more willing to break with their respective party lines. It includes independents who choose not to be part of either political party, some of whom are sympathetic to one party or the other but are not beholden to it and others who are, truly, completely independent. It includes big-picture voters who look at a candidate’s broad-spectrum of beliefs, and it also includes single-issue voters who only care about one position on one issue. Some of these centrists are politically interested and follow politics closely, while others simply vote the way their friends, families, or televisions tell them to. Some don’t make the decision until they’re in the voting booth; I can’t imagine on what basis they finally pull the lever (or tap the screen, as the case may be).
Needless to say, the centrists can go either way. Sometimes they align strongly on one side or the other; sometimes they’re a complete wash. Sometimes their behavior can be predicted accurately; sometimes they go in a completely different direction than you expect. In general they have good sense, at least when you average it out nationwide. They tend to reject the obvious panderers, and they tend to focus-in somewhat correctly on the most important issues of the day. They are also, however, notoriously finicky—they’ll turn against you in a heartbeat when you do something stupid, even if it’s taken completely out of context. Occasionally, they’ll rally behind somebody they don’t actually agree with just to stick it to somebody else or reject some particular idea they don’t like.
I mentioned above that McCain lost the presidential election in 2008 in-part because he almost completely lost the support of the conservative base with his support for the Bush deficits and Bailout Bonanza. This is true; the lack of passion on the Republican side certainly hurt McCain’s chances. However, he really lost because he lost the centrists. You see, pretty much everybody in this country who wasn’t a Wall St. executive hated the Bailout Bonanza under Bush. The Republican Party got branded—deservedly—as being in Wall Street’s pocket, being big-government spendocrats, wasting trillions of taxpayer dollars, undermining the free market, and more. Overnight, McCain’s already-tepid support in the ranks of the centrists all-but evaporated (right along with the support of the conservative base). He lost the presidency when he ‘suspended his campaign’ to go back to Washington and waste 700 billion dollars on a bailout boondoggle that pissed off a huge percentage of the American public.
The centrists, in rejection of the bailouts and deficit spending under Bush and the Republicans, swung over to the Democratic side and voted en-masse for Obama. Never-mind that Obama supported the bailout boondoggle too, or that most of his policy positions were clearly destined to rack up even higher deficits that the record-setting ones under Bush. The finicky middle decided, with good reason, to send a message to the Republicans . . . but in doing so they voted-in an accelerated version of the very same policies.
I wouldn’t dare to venture a guess of how it actually breaks down percentage-wise, but it’s clear that some of the people in this group knew exactly what they were doing—probably those who were leaning toward Obama anyway—while many simply voted out of anger. Like most Americans, they were mad about the Bush deficits and the Bailout Bonanza and they desperately wanted a change of course. They heard Obama lambasting Bush for the deficits and making the point that the last balanced budgets had been under a Democratic president and said, ‘Yes, that’s what I want: balanced budgets and no more bailouts!’ Many didn’t bother to do the research on Obama’s economic policy positions; if they had, they probably would have just stayed home.
Obama’s cleverly-executed campaign also had a lot in it to like. He promised a new era in Washington and an end to politics-as-usual. He promised that any health care reform bill would be crafted in public on C-SPAN. He promised that every bill would be published online days before votes so that the American people could see what was in them. These were icing on the anti-bailout cake; not only would there be a new era of fiscal responsibility, but the people would have a chance to intervene before votes when Washington politicians started going awry. It sounded really, really great.
This perfect storm of lofty promises and anti-bailout anger swept Obama into office, along with strong Democratic Party gains in both houses of Congress, where he promptly broke every one of those promises.
He accelerated the bailouts and quadrupled the federal deficit. He appointed (or re-appointed) the Bailout Bonanza’s architects to various economic positions in his cabinet and beyond. He brought in the usual bevy of politics-as-usual advisers and appointees from the ranks of big-business and lobbying firms. He foisted upon us a terribly malformed health care bill that was crafted behind closed doors and then the Congress voted on it without anyone having read it, even in Congress itself, let alone after being posted online for us to review. Indeed, no major bill has been posted online for us to read and review before being considered and voted on by the Congress.
These kinds of lies annoy the average voter. Ideologues on the right and left seem to look the other way when it’s their ideologues doing it (and pounce on it when it’s an opposition ideologue doing it), but the centrists tend to decry it across the board. Today though, the centrists are especially angry—the angriest I have ever seen them. It’s not because what Obama is doing is any worse than what the presidents before him have done, but because he explicitly promised he would be different. He made the ‘end to politics-as-usual’ one of the central pillars of his campaign, and he promised that now our voices would be heard. It was supposed to be a ‘new day in Washington.’ Instead, we got more of the same—more bailouts, more spending, and more ignoring the will of the people.
It would be impossible for me to over-state how betrayed the centrist Obama voters feel, or how badly many of them want to send him a message with their votes this year. In 2008, angry voters voted Democrat. The Democratic Party so completely missed the opportunity to win them over that now, only two years later, most of those same angry voters will be voting Republican.
The feeling of betrayal among voters—much more than the internal reformation of the Republican Party that is getting more attention—is why the Democrats are heading for an electoral debacle in November. The ‘fired-up’ conservative base, and the fact that Republicans are fielding conservative candidates, certainly helps but isn’t what’s behind the bulk of Republican gains or their rapid turnaround from political also-ran to front-runner.
It’s probably too late for Democrats to blunt their losses very much, since they needed to start undoing their betrayals six months ago with improved transparency, honest legislation, and an absolute end to the big-government deficit spending and the Bush/Obama Bailout Bonanza. Demonizing the ‘Tea Party’ movement or the resurgence of actual conservatism is a guaranteed losing strategy, at least this year, since actual fiscal conservatism is so obviously preferable to the ‘spend trillions of taxpayer dollars on miscellaneous crap’ strategy we’ve been trying for the last three or four years without success.
Democratic candidates may get some traction in some districts by focusing on social wedge issues or the personal religious and moral views of Republican candidates, but that will only go so far. Voters perceive, basically correctly, that they have a choice between bailout spendocrats who broke their promises and people who will try (at least as much as an opposition president will let them) to right our economic ship. These side issues may distract some people, but they are hardly the most important things to concern ourselves with as the republic teeters on economic collapse (and possibly worse). We can talk about gay marriage and abortion again after we stop spending ourselves into oblivion, okay?
Lastly, even if the Democrats are roundly trounced in November, Republicans should be careful not to miss the opportunity to solidify their support in the aftermath. We are seeing now how easy it is, if a party betrays the people who handed it an election, for those people to turn on a dime and support the opposition party they had recently been so strongly against. It would be absurd to think it can’t happen again in another two years if Republican’s don’t do everything in their power to stop the Bush/Obama Bailout Bonanza, accumulation of federal authority and power, and back-room politics that have so marked the last two presidencies (and many before them).