On healthcare and other hot issues: Follow the independents

The number of voters not tied to Democrats or Republicans is expanding fast. Both parties need to adjust.

As George W. Bush did in his presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised a new spirit of bipartisanship. But the political rancor has only intensified in Washington from one presidency to the next.

Last week, for example, Rep. Alan Grayson, a Florida Democrat, condemned the GOP's idea of healthcare reform as calling for sick people to "die quickly." Republicans demanded an apology. They equated his comments on the House floor to South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson's shouting at the president, "You lie" [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the state that Sen. Joe Wilson represents.].

What might bring Democrats and Republicans together on issues that a majority of Americans can back?

The answer may be more of a "who" than a "what."

The whos are independent voters. Forty-three percent of Americans now consider themselves independents – the highest percentage in nearly three decades, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll last month.

And in a half dozen states, independent candidates look ready to launch competitive bids in races for governor.

Independents can be a volatile group. The vast swath of uncommitted swung to Democrats in the midterm elections of 2006 and last year. They're swinging away now.

Were the 2010 elections to occur today, 43 percent of independents say they would vote Republican (in a generic congressional ballot), while 38 percent would vote Democratic, the Pew Research Center finds. That's quite a shift from 2006, when independents favored Democrats over Republicans, 44 to 33 percent.

The change delights Republicans, who could pick up 20 or so House seats in the next election.

But not so fast. Both parties should look deeply at this group whose favor they must curry if they want to carry the next election.

The GOP should realize that the drift is because the Democratic Party has disappointed – not because Republicans entice. The obstructionist label is blazoned on the elephant hide. Forty-two percent of independents blame the GOP for not reaching across the aisle, while only 26 blame President Obama, Pew reports.

Perhaps the GOP calculates that by bucking Mr. Obama's initiatives, it can recapture the House in 2010, just as it did in 1994, during President Clinton's first term. But back then, Republican Newt Gingrich at least presented a "do something" alternative – the "contract with America."

If Republicans keep the "party of no" label, they won't inspire enough of today's independents. The GOP may gain House seats, but not regain control. The better strategy is to look for common ground on popular issues.

The take-away for Democrats is a course adjustment.

The great recession has changed the political landscape. Above all, independents worry about the economy and the mounting federal deficit. They chafe against healthcare reform that seems expensive and government-heavy – though they support goals such as universal coverage and insurance for preexisting conditions.

Independents trust Obama more than Democratic or Republican leaders in Congress to solve most problems. That puts the onus on the president to listen to that vast middle.

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