Wednesday, October 06, 2010


I've said some nasty things about Matt Bai of The New York Times over the years, but I think today -- without meaning to -- he's given us the best refutation yet of Tom Friedman's call for a third-party savior to lead us out of the political wilderness.

Bai looks at the current turmoil and sees business as usual -- and bear with this, because it's worth thinking about:

...if Democrats lose their grip on Congress in November, President Obama would become the third consecutive president to see his party tossed from power on his watch -- a sequence that has never happened before in the country's tumultuous political history.

(Right -- though Bai doesn't add that we drove five of the previous six presidents out of office prematurely. And the sixth, Ronald Reagan, lost his Senate majority.)

Bai then reports on a focus group of independent voters -- and this is where it gets interesting:

...a group of New York-based consultants ... have been convening small groups of self-identified independent voters who are friends or relatives of one another, and convening focus groups in a participant’s living room.

... the facilitator asks the half-dozen or so voters to invent their own countries and to compare their idealized versions with the country they actually live in.

... The dominant theme of the discussion, in which jobs and taxes came up only in passing, seemed to be the larger breakdown of civil society -- the disappearance of common courtesy, the relentless stream of data from digital devices, the proliferation of lawsuits and the insidious influence of media on their children.

... These voters did not hate politicians. They simply saw both parties, along with the media and big business, as symptoms of the larger societal ailment. And this underlying perception, that politicians in Washington conduct themselves just as childishly and with the same lack of accountability as the kids throwing chicken casserole in the lunchroom, may well be the principal emotion behind the electorate's propensity to vote out whoever holds power.

These are the voters of Rick Perlstein's book Nixonland, always looking for someone -- LBJ in '64 or Nixon in '72, both of whom won landslide victories -- who seems able to keep social disruption at bay. They're incredibly naive, and of course they're eventually frustrated.

This rebuts Tom Friedman because what he seeks is a messiah-president who

will talk about education reform, without worrying about offending unions; financial reform, without worrying about losing donations from Wall Street; corporate tax reductions to stimulate jobs, without worrying about offending the far left; energy and climate reform, without worrying about offending the far right and coal-state Democrats; and proper health care reform, without worrying about offending insurers and drug companies.

Sure, voters will vote for a candidate who promises to pursue an agenda like this (see: Obama, Barack, campaign of 2008). But as soon as that person actually tries to pursue such an agenda legislatively, the powerful fat cats whose oxen would be gored by the news laws stir up chaos in Congress. And the Nixonland independents just conclude that Congress is being childish.


I think Bai's analysis explains a lot of things.

It explains why Republicans aren't being punished for obstructionism -- these voters just want someone who can wave a wand and make obstructionism stop, just the way they wish someone could make loud public cellphone talkers just go away.

It explains why a guy like Alan Grayson doesn't seem able to succeed with what seems to be a pretty good left-wing imitation of a right-wing bomb-thrower. The difference is, the crazy wingnuts, in between inflammatory remarks, talk constantly of restoration -- societal restoration, constitutional restoration. Angry righty voters respond to the rage -- but centrists respond to the (implausible) promise that the unpleasantness will all go away.

And it explains why Democrats are really crazy not to invoke FDR very much (in fact, they hardly seem to do it at all). If Democrats mentioned FDR once in a while, they could invoke "freedom from fear" and similar notions and they could talk about new legislation -- say, the health care bill -- as part of a project of restoration.

One last point: if Republicans take control of the government after the 2012 elections, we should raise hell -- if only because independents, if they're true to form, ought to blame any unrest on the GOP. (I think these indies responded to our agitation against the Iraq war for all those years -- ending the war by voting Democratic may have seemed to independents like a way to achieve stability.) Alas, we know Democratic pols will do just the opposite. They'll make nice. They'll compromise.

And that could keep Republicans in power a long time.

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