On a WAMU public-radio program on Monday morning, an hour before President Obama’s news conference, host Diane Rehm asked her studio panel of three journalists whether Americans who were not part of either party’s ideological base were engaged in the current budget and debt-ceiling battle. It was a simple question, but it went to the heart of the problem.
Republican members of Congress and presidential candidates are hearing almost exclusively from tea party activists and other vocal conservatives, who are saying, “Don’t do anything that would raise taxes or even close tax loopholes.” Democratic lawmakers are hearing from activists on the Left and their own constituencies, who are saying, “Any reduction of any kind in Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid would be absolutely unacceptable.”
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The bases on both sides view any deviation or compromise as blasphemy. The astute veteran political columnist Mark Shields likes to say that he would rather belong to a church that is seeking converts than one intent on driving out heretics. But that’s not the approach that many rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats in Congress are taking these days.
President Obama seemed to be aiming his message, complete with highly conciliatory references to House Speaker John Boehner, at swing voters who do not make up the base of either party. This time, Obama didn’t compare Republicans to impetuous children. Nor did he dress anybody down, as he did House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan a few months ago, with the Wisconsin Republican sitting in the audience as he spoke. This time, the president went for the middle—the voters who sit between the two 40-yard lines and matter most in presidential elections.
My sense is that when members of Congress go back to their states and districts, they are staying more in their comfort zones than they did in the past. They are appearing before more predictably friendly audiences and, deliberately or not, eschewing those who disagree with them. Every lawmaker can point to an event where an angry constituent became confrontational. But those incidents are happening less and less, minimizing their exposure to hostile audiences and contrary points of view.
Many Democrats have ugly memories about the tarring and feathering they received in 2009 from tea partiers over health care reform and cap-and-trade policies intended to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Republicans have even fresher memories about being pilloried for Ryan’s plan to convert Medicare from a defined benefit to a voucher-like subsidy for buying private health insurance. However, the more that lawmakers preach to their own choirs, the more out of touch they will become. Eventually, that will make them vulnerable.
What they may be missing is that the November 2012 electorate is likely to be much broader ideologically and more diverse than the smaller midterm turnout last year. For Republican incumbents fearing challenges from their right, the primary turnouts next year are likely to be larger and broader as well. In some cases, independent voters will be joining the primary pool. Many will vote in Republican presidential primaries, because they will not be tempted to vote in the uncontested Democratic presidential primary.
But if members of Congress think they are staying out of trouble by staying in their comfort zones, just wait until their constituents see their retirement plans take a beating if the stock and bond markets throw up their hands about Washington. Do you think that employers will hire and expand if the financial markets go into a spiral, as they did during the impasse over the Troubled Asset Relief Program in September 2008? Voters may be hot under the collar now, but lawmakers haven’t seen anything compared to the possible reaction if the debt-ceiling debate reaches a total impasse or the markets become convinced that Washington can’t deal with the country’s fiscal woes. Just as generals are said to be always tempted to fight the last war, politicians tend to become prisoners of the last election, ignoring the fact that political dynamics and public attitudes change—sometimes profoundly and with little warning. The violent political backlash we saw in 2006, 2008, and 2010 may well manifest in a whole new way this time, one that someone locked into a 2010 mindset may find disorienting.
Elected officials on both sides of the aisle become like Pavlov’s dogs when they spend too much time with friendly audiences. They come to instinctively know what listeners want to hear and will produce a political reward versus what will be frowned upon and could warrant punishment. They know what lines and arguments will result in smiles and heads nodding up and down in approval or frowns and heads shaking back and forth. Predictable audiences result in predictable responses. But members should try a little door-knocking and seek out audiences that don’t consist almost entirely of the party faithful. They might hear something very different, and get a hint of what may be coming down the road.
This article appears in the July 12, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.