The Partisan Straitjacket


The challenge for the Democrats, if they do triumph in November, will be to break out of the partisan straitjacket that constricts American politics. That has been the real inner demon of the Republicans ? they appeared to care more about their party and its prerogatives than about the country’s welfare. The Democrats, in recent years, have drunk deep from that same poisoned chalice, and they need to stop.

That’s not going to go down well in the blogosphere. And yet, I don’t think this is the sort of instinctive centrism that marks, say, David Broder. It’s more about temperament.

And tactics. If Democrats win in November, they’re still going to have a very limited amount of power to get things done. Policy-wise, they’re going to remain pretty constrained, and that means they can go in two basic directions: (a) acting as the party of moderation and focusing on bipartisan “good government” proposals, or (b) using the subpoena power of Congress to investigate the hell out of what’s been going on in the executive branch for the past six years.

Which will do them more good? This depends on whether you think there are lots of moderate, centrist voters in America who will respond positively to Ignatius’s wholesome message. On that score, though, keep in mind something Thomas Edsall wrote recently:

In late 2000, even as the result of the presidential election was still being contested in court, George W. Bush’s chief pollster Matt Dowd was writing a memo for [Karl] Rove that would reach a surprising conclusion. Based on a detailed examination of poll data from the previous two decades, Dowd’s memo argued that the percentage of swing voters had shrunk to a tiny fraction of the electorate. Most self-described “independent” voters “are independent in name only,” Dowd told me in an interview describing his memo. “Seventy-five percent of independents vote straight ticket” for one party or the other.

Once such independents are reclassified as Democrats or Republicans, a key trend emerges: Between 1980 and 2000, the percentage of true swing voters fell from a very substantial 24 percent of the electorate to just 6 percent. In other words, the center was literally disappearing. Which meant that, instead of having every incentive to govern as “a uniter, not a divider,” Bush now had every reason to govern via polarization.

More on that here, including a chart that shows the breakdown of true independents vs. faux independents. Moderation may sound appealing, but there’s growing evidence that it doesn’t play well on election day for either party. Caveat emptor.