The recall elections in Wisconsin are almost finished — the final two Democrats up for recall are not considered in serious trouble — and overall it looks like the Democrats managed to recall two of six Republican Senators, not enough to put the State Senate in the hands of the Democrats.
Republicans are happy with the result. They kept control of the Senate and can claim a victory despite losing two members. Democrats can take solace in the fact that they were going against Republicans who had won their districts in 2008, a year when Obama took Wisconsin and the public was in a far more Democratic mood. The fact that the Democrats could bat .333 in such districts — and come within two percentage points of taking a district that hasn’t gone Democrat since 1896 — should give them pause. They didn’t get a victory so much as dodge a bullet.
Democrats privately had admitted they were only likely to win two — though they hoped for the third (and got close). But many on the more liberal wing of the party had convinced themselves that public rage against Governor Walker and the GOP, along with voter enthusiasm on the left, would give them more — some thought a sweep possible. For them this is disappointing, their chance to send a message failed.
The other day I had a post critical of a group Norbrook named the “Frustrati,” — progressives convinced that the only thing Democrats lack are leaders willing to take strong liberal stances and refuse to compromise. They believe the public will reward strength and principle, and that Obama and Reid have been too willing to work with the GOP. This election should give them pause. Even with a very energized and hard working base fervently trying to win at least three elections voters didn’t vote that much different than they did before. Republicans can also argue that the two who lost were in trouble for personal reasons, that stronger candidates would have won.
Put bluntly: people on both sides of the political spectrum over-estimate how much the voting public agrees with their side. Each will cherry pick issue polls, look at particular races (e.g., the Democratic victory in a Republican district in New York earlier this year) and read into them a national mood or trend. The fact is that the country voted overwhelmingly Democratic in 2006 and 2008, willing to elected an untested Barack Hussein Obama who was accused of being far left and somehow not truly American. Then in 2010 an admittedly smaller electorate turned around and voted a stunning number of Democrats out of office in the House to take control. The only reason the Democrats held the Senate was that they had few seats up for re-election. If the 20+ seats up in 2012 had been on the line in 2010, Mitch McConnell would again be Majority leader.
There’s only one way to read that. The voting public is neither liberal nor conservative. People do not equate political ideology with principle. Principles are what guide every day personal choices and ethical perspectives. Politics is about making deals, compromising, and solving problems. Pragmatism is the quintessential American philosophy. People will vote one year for someone whose principles are informed by liberal or even Social Democratic values, then turn around the next time and vote for someone who embraces very conservative views.
Any party that over-estimates the appeal of its own ideology risks overreaching and causing the public to correct the situation in the next election. Any party that refuses to compromise or show an understanding of different perspectives will be seen as intransigent and unable to govern. And, though parties must keep their bases in line, giving their base too much power can doom them in the next election.
Right now the Republicans believe Obama is vulnerable in 2012 and the GOP can gain control of the Senate. They see the potential of repealing the health care reform, dramatically cutting spending, and steeply downsizing government. Many think that’s the only way to deal with the economic crisis. If they hang around right wing blog sites and talk with like minded folk, they’ll bolster each others opinions and start to believe their view is self-evidently correct, and that compromise is therefore weakness and wrong. But so far the more Social Democratic countries of Scandinavia are in less economic trouble than we are, their way is one way to respond, but not the only way.
Obama is vulnerable (though not dead in the water as some believe), but it’s not because Americans have done an ideological flip flop. Rather, Americans are frustrated about the economy and if they see Obama as ineffective they’ll consider trying something else. If the Republicans over-reach or show too much ideological stridency, they could lose the House (many tea party Congressfolk are in clear danger) or even cause people willing to vote against Obama to see him as a safer bet.
Democrats have to take from this that the energy of their base is not enough to win the hearts and minds of voters. President Obama isn’t having trouble because he’s weak or a bad President, anyone would be having trouble with this economy. Moreover, you can’t just give beautiful speeches and stand firm and expect the other party to crumble. The Republicans control the House — some on the left fall victim to groupthink and under estimate the ability of the GOP leaders in the House to play a high stakes game. Obama can’t force them to vote for what he wants.
Rather, they have to recognize that given the current economic conditions the ideological appeal of big government is probably at a low ebb. The public wants someone who will talk seriously about reducing debt, solving problems and making compromises. Despite the problems Obama’s had with the economy, his approval isn’t any worse than Ronald Reagan’s was in the third year of his Presidency. Obama’s obvious pragmatism and patience is one reason he is still favored by many to win re-election — people may be upset he hasn’t been able to fix the economy, but the 2010 image of Obama as an over-reaching liberal has given way to Obama as a conciliator. The Democrats best bet in 2012 is to grab the center and hold it as firmly as they can, allowing the tea party rhetoric sure to be flying furiously in the primary season define the GOP. That doesn’t guarantee victory (though if it were combined with a rebounding economy in 2012 it could come close), but it assures a competitive election.
The Republicans dodged a bullet but risk not learning their lesson. The bravado of John Boehner saying he got 98% of what he wanted may mollify the base, but risks turning off a public not keen on ideology. Did 98% of what he wanted guarantee a downgrade? They have every reason to believe that 2012 will be the second part of the kind of two election cycle the Democrats enjoyoed in ’06 and ’08. But it’s not guaranteed — and too much red meat for the base may come back to haunt them, they could be their own biggest obstacle to a successful 2012 election.
Both sides should take Wisconsin seriously. Democrats have to realize the country isn’t mad at the GOP and willing to march boldly to the left. Republicans shouldn’t think the US embraced tea party ideals and is swinging to the right. Whoever occupies the center in 2012 is most likely to win. For the Republicans that would be the safest strategy. For the Democrats it’s essential.