Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Figure it out!
This is the lede in a piece from the Chicago Tribune today (via Political Wire): "As congressional Democrats prepare to watch President Bush take the oath of office Thursday, many within the party are growing frustrated at the lack of a clear Democratic strategy for dealing with a president who they believe is not particularly popular despite his re-election."

And here's the first sentence from an opinion piece in today's Yale Daily News: "Americans are split along party lines more evenly and bitterly than in past decades."

It's times like these that I really wish my readership was higher than it is, because this is something that the overwhelming majority of Americans does not seem to understand, and they need to. What the author of the YDN piece goes on to make the overall point of his column, that parties are in no way set in stone, is correct. But starting from the basic assumption that the country is more divided than it has been at any time in history is simple.

I think what people do is they see that the relative size of the parties is pretty close, so we must be strongly divided. They look at Bush and say "hey, half the country voted against him, he must be unpopular. Well, in his reelection campaign, Clinton only got 49% of the popular vote, and turnout percentages were significantly lower than they were this past November. This shows that Bush is not nearly as unpopular as many might like to believe, while also illustrating the fact that this country is perpetually divided politically.

Yes, a lot of people cared very passionately about the outcome of this election. And yes, about half of them were crushed by the result, leaving another half that were ecstatic. And here's the key point: at MOST this group of the crushed and ecstatic makes up maybe thirty percent of the total population, leaving a whole mess of people who vote more out of duty or habit than anything else.

Now, this is not to say that the political landscape is the same as it always has been. In reality, this is the first time in decades that there are more registered Republicans than Democrats. And, the part that really excites me, is that Bush completely changed the expectations of a national campaign. You see, historically, campaigns have been very easy to summarize: each candidate runs to the extreme of his pary in the primaries, and then sprints to the center once he's shored up a base. Kerry tried to follow this strategy, but ended up labeling himself as a flip-flopper. Bush, on the other hand, never moved much further to the right than he has traditionally stood, and then completely refused to move back towards the center. And he won, by completely throwing the model out the window. So how did this work?

Not because the nation is more evenly, or bitterly divided than ever before as many people incorrectly assume, but because the division has moved. Need an example? Look at the war in Iraq. The traditional divisions about war were defined in the sixties and seventies over Vietnam. So, when a war came up, supported by a Republican president, the left went to its playbook and started shouting the same things as they had in their previous lives. They had done the same thing when we were in Somalia (remember Black Hawk Down?), and it worked to perfection. The problem is, the line had been redrawn after 9/11, and Americans no longer define all wars in the Vietnam context so readily. As a result, despite the many different, well-defined anti-war positions, the one candidate with a pro-war stance won out in the end.

Basically, the line has moved to the right on the preponderance of issues. (Meanwhile, stem-cell funding, gay civil unions—gay marriage hasn't moved much at all—and a few others have moved to the left, and you may notice that much of the right is just as confused by these issues as the left is on everything else.) On these issues, which controled the electoral rhetoric, the left was dumbfounded. The more they tried to run for the old center, the more they found that they couldn't pick up votes there. Bush, on the other hand, could sit pretty because, for once, the center of the spectrum had shifted in his favor. Recognizing this as early as 3 years ago was the genius of Karl Rove—and yes, he picked issues like gay marriage to try and accentuate this new alignment during the first term, but it was already there.

Make sense?
[End Rant]

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