Politicians have been trained for decades to internalize a strategy. It is the essence of the conventional wisdom: we have our voters, they have their voters, and to win we need to convince those in between.
But that strategy is flawed, and its faults have been revealed by the rise of Barack Obama and laid bare by the Tea Parties. The political environment, at least in the 2012 election cycle, will not favor candidates who chase the ephemeral middle.
The long years of George W. Bush’s presidency were marked by an increased polarization of the electorate. The left hated him from the start. The long years of war …
But you don’t need a history lesson. We’re good and polarized now. Barack Obama continues his daily partisan attacks, unlike any president in living memory. The base is ready for someone who will stand up to Obama and defend our principles.
But outside of the two camps, apart from the 40% who consider themselves conservative and the 20% who call themselves liberal, there is another 35% who do not accept a label. But that does not mean they are all alike, nor that they are less opinionated than those at the extremes. Many are uninterested and uninformed, or vote for someone who sounds and looks good. But many are highly interested in politics and hold strong views that do not match up well with either party.
Independent, that is, does not mean “moderate”. Political belief can no longer be modeled on a left-right line, if it ever could. Likewise, trying to fit us all into quadrants or points on a compass is equally fruitless. The number of political differences in what we believe about a given issue, how strongly believe it, and how important we believe the issue to be varies with each individual, and changes over time.
It is a mistake, therefor, to treat independents as being somehow between the right and left. For any given issue, there is a limitless supply of places where they can be.
Newt Gingrich is a scholar far beyond my depth, a man of great learning and intellect. And yet, it is easy to see why his campaign stumbled out of the gate. Gingrich is playing by the old rules, trying to maintain his own conservative ideals while appealing to the middle.
As an excellent piece by the matchless Michael Barone notes,
Ryan’s Medicare plan was part of the budget resolution that all but four Republicans voted for in the House. It is for all practical purposes the platform of the Republican party. And Gingrich seemed to trash it.
What Gingrich actually said, as Barone points out, was “I don’t think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering”. Some wonder at that, because Ryan’s plan isn’t attempting to design society, but merely to redesign government to be the least intrusive it can be, given an electorate determined to use government to care for the aged.
Gingrich was referring to the fact that Ryan’s plan does not end government involvement in health care delivery. It holds the promise of inserting some amount of choice and competition into Medicare. But what Gingrich knows, as all conservatives should know, is that any system designed to mimic the free market without being the free market is going to fail in some as yet unknown way.
Conservatives know the plan is not perfect. Ryan’s plan is intended to be an improvement, a way to keep the country solvent while we work out other changes.
But then Gingrich had to go and characterize the plan as “radical”, a word the left had chosen as a way to attack it.
That is the real sin here: Gingrich was using the language of the other side, in a clear attempt to stake out the moderate ground. In doing so, as Barone says, he gave the press and Democrats (but I repeat myself) an easy way to beat up on Ryan’s plan.
How can a plan be a radical change when it doesn’t kick in for a decade?
Mitch Daniels was introduced to many outside the Midwest by his profile in The Weekly Standard last June, in which he is supposed to call for a “truce” on social issues. But Daniels was really arguing that we need to keep fiscal issue front and center, and not waste political capital fighting between ourselves.
But even that is problematic. Here again we have the left-center-right model, nuanced a bit to say that while the middle may be with us on fiscal issues, we dare not anger them by bringing up the disintegration of our society.
There are other examples, both with these candidates and others, such as Mitt. But this is already long enough.
My prescription for candidates is to be yourselves. If you hold conservative principles, make the case with the electorate. The left is going to demonize you regardless of whether you’re an even-handed moderate or a doctrinaire conservative. If you hope to be able govern with any authority, you must campaign on your beliefs.
Perhaps this will help: your positions do not matter to many independents, only your eloquence. When are you more eloquent than when speaking from the heart?