Skidding past center...again

Americans voted for change, but by running away from what we didn't like, not running towards anything in particular. If we were aiming for the center, we missed.

Photo illustration / Index Stock Imagery / Newscom
Like one of those tiny ball-bearing games, or a golfer trying to tap it in, it's easy to aim for the tiny hole, but even easier for the ball to slip right past it. Americans claim that they want a return to sanity and balance, and an end to polarization, but if that's what they swung for this time, they missed.

I’ve been trying to take in just some of the analyses of what happened in yesterday’s midterm elections and speculation about what this will mean for policy making going forward, and I see/hear a lot of these words: anger, discontent, polarization, ideology, rhetoric, obstructionism, entrenchment, defection, desertion…insanity! Not good words.

The same pundits claim that what Americans are saying they want is what Jon Stewart was trying to say we want: some civility, cooperation, compromise, coming to the center, working together for the common good…some reasonable, sane behavior.

Yet running away from politicians and policies that seem too far off center is no guarantee that we’ll now move closer towards the center. I don’t know exactly why I have this visual image, but I picture American voters as like a marble in a tube that has a very shallow indentation in the middle and solid caps at both ends. Trying to roll that marble from one end to land and stay just perfectly in that center point is hard; we tend to skid past the center and roll to the opposite end instead. And now that many Blue Dog Democrats have lost their reelection bids, that already hard-to-settle-in center point has just gotten shallower.

The AP’s Liz Sidoti offered her analysis last night, summed up in her article’s title “United but divided” (emphasis added):

WASHINGTON — America is united in its frustration over the economy, over Washington, over where the country is heading.

But it’s deeply split about how to fix some of the nation’s biggest woes - a ballooning federal debt, near 10 percent joblessness and a sluggish recovery.

And, now that a divided government is certain, President Barack Obama and ascendent Republicans face only two options: compromise or stalemate.

Can this new power structure - one with different ideological philosophies to fix increasingly complex problems - actually lead a sharply polarized country that can’t agree on where it wants to go? Will the politicians even try?…

An Associated Press analysis of preliminary exit poll results showed that most voters agreed that they were dissatisfied with Obama and the Congress. And they didn’t have a favorable view of either the Democratic or Republican parties. They also were intensely frustrated with the way the federal government is working. And most thought the country was seriously on the wrong track.

But three equal segments of voters picked different top priorities for the next Congress: tackling the budget deficit, spending money to create jobs and cutting taxes. They also differed on whether to extend broad tax cuts enacted under George W. Bush or change the health care overhaul enacted this year.

There was majority agreement that the economy was the top concern. Yet again, solutions differed dramatically: A third apiece thought the government’s $814 billion stimulus program helped the economy, hurt the economy or made no difference.

An ailing America took out its economic anger on the party in power

In other words, we voters were running away from what we didn’t like, rather than running toward anything we do like (or even know we dislike less). That means we’re running pretty chaotically, without purpose (and screaming with arms flailing).

As the Washington Post’s Dan Balz contemplates, this is by no means any guarantee we will land in that sensible, but elusive, “center” (emphasis added):

Independents didn’t just defect from the Democrats. They deserted them in droves. If there is one number from all the exit polls that leaps out, it is from Ohio, where independents went for Rob Portman, who won the Senate race, by a staggering margin of 39 percentage points. In the governor’s race there, independents backed winner John Kasich by 16 points. Overall, independents voted Tuesday for Republicans by a margin of 18 points. Two years ago, Democrats won them by eight points.

Independents continue to swing back and forth. Obama may hope they will be back in his column by 2012, if the economy has recovered. Perhaps. But the message from independents was not only unhappiness with the results of Obama’s economic and domestic agenda, but also with the agenda itself. According to exit polls, 57 percent of independent voters said Obama’s policies would hurt the country in the long run. Just 38 percent said they would help…

House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) and other GOP leaders have sought in the early hours after their victory to assure people that they do not regard the results as a genuine affirmation of the Republican brand. But if history is any guide, hubris could quickly set in, in which case they will have trouble avoiding the conclusion that this election was a sweeping endorsement of their agenda.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said as much when he suggested Democrats hadn’t gotten the message of Tuesday’s results. “We’re determined to stop the agenda Americans have rejected and to turn the ship around,” he said.

But voters still view Republicans with distrust. Independents who so soundly backed Republican candidates Tuesday are as disdainful of the GOP as they are of the Democrats. According to the exit polls, 58 percent of independents said they view the Democrats unfavorably and 57 percent said they view Republicans unfavorably.

Republicans have challenged Obama by arguing that he has governed from the left while the country is center right. But will Republicans interpret Tuesday’s results by lurching too far to the right? They may look at the exit polls and see that 41 percent of voters called themselves conservatives, a high watermark, and say the country has shifted dramatically.

The party’s center of gravity has certainly shifted, but has the entire country? Republicans now have a hard-right base in what is still a country that prefers its politics closer to the center. Pleasing the base and the newly elected conservatives, while staying focused on the middle, is the leadership’s first task…

That doesn’t diminish the historic nature of what Republicans accomplished Tuesday, but it is a reminder that this country remains in pain and unsettled politically - highly polarized but unsettled in the center. That’s why misreading Tuesday’s results is dangerous for both sides.

That ability to achieve political compromise and find the “sensible center” will be tested immediately with the issue of the expiring Bush tax cuts. The Washington Post’s Lori Montgomery suggests that the President and congressional Democrats will be more likely to cave on at least temporary extension of all of the Bush tax cuts, and that the newly emboldened Republicans will be even less likely to acknowledge the economic tradeoffs involved with deficit-financed tax cuts:

With so much at stake, lobbyists and other congressional analysts expect lawmakers to approve a quick-fix measure that would extend the most critical provisions - including all the Bush-administration tax breaks for individuals - at least through next year.

Republican leaders have signaled that they are open to such a move. On Wednesday, a chastened President Obama signaled that he, too, is open to such a compromise, despite his earlier pledge to let the portion of the Bush tax cuts that benefit the wealthy disappear from the tax code at midnight Dec. 31.

Obama said he would sit down “in the next few weeks” with the Republicans who have reclaimed the House and made big gains in the Senate and “see where we can move forward in a way that, first of all, does no harm.

“How that negotiation works is too early to say,” Obama said. But “we all have an interest in growing the economy. We’re not going to play brinksmanship.”

Congressional Democrats, however, are deeply divided over tax policy. Some liberals say that extending tax breaks for the rich for even one more year would amount to a betrayal of Obama’s promise, while many moderates say the weak economy argues against raising taxes for anyone.

On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said he supports Obama’s plan to let taxes rise for the wealthiest 2 percent of taxpayers, but “I’m not bullheaded.” He added that he plans to meet with Senate Democrats before deciding how to move forward.

Republicans, for their part, say they have no incentive to compromise on the tax cuts, citing a mandate from voters to keep taxes low and to begin whacking at a federal budget bloated by spending on what the GOP views as Obama’s failed economic policies.

“We should not allow any tax increases, period, because it’s going to slow the economy down,” said Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who is in line to chair the House Budget Committee. “If you want to get this deficit down, you need two things: economic growth and spending cuts.”

My hunch is that passing a temporary extension of the full complement of the Bush tax cuts, even for just a year, is not really a compromise at all. It just makes it more likely that the full complement of the Bush (now Obama) tax cuts will become permanent and permanently deficit-financed. It is in this way that voting the Democrats out of Congress will not prove to be a way to move policies closer to center and reduce budget deficits. We’ll just be skidding past the center, again. In running away screaming from the status quo, we’ll ironically make it less likely to land in a different and better place.

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