View from Australia: The false populist choice

By Jonathan Bradley

Earlier this month, I cautioned against conflating centrism with policies that genuinely appeal to swing voters. An article by experienced congressional observers Thomas Mann and Norman Orenstein explained the fallacy:

True Independents and swing voters aren’t best captured through clever centrist political positioning. They have almost no ideological frameworks with which to judge the candidates and parties; they are quintessentially referendum voters, with low levels of information and focusing almost exclusively on performance. Their greatest concern now, quite naturally, is jobs and economic growth, and they are therefore unlikely candidates for recruitment into a radical center supporting a Grand Bargain on the national deficit.

Indeed, the deficit is the single issue still gripping proponents of centristm in the national capital, and, though unemployment remains high and growth sluggish, as the supercommittee gets ready to unveil its planned spending cuts and revenue increases, the political conversation is again returning to austerity. After a few months in which America has been properly focused on the problems of jobs and inequality, the canard that voters clamour for bipartisan compromises and centrist solutions is again circulating.

Josh Kraushaar posits the split between centrism and populism as being crucial to President Barack Obama's re-election chances. He does so in the form of a sort-of smart point about the president having to choose between appealing to voters in Virginia or Ohio:

 The president’s advisers are stuck between pursuing two distinctly different strategies and two very different kinds of voters, each of which is crucial to his reelection. The first is an “Ohio strategy,” which means adopting an aggressively populist message to win back blue-collar voters in Rust Belt states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The second is a “Virginia strategy,” which would emphasize a more centrist message aimed at upscale white-collar professionals and college-educated suburbanites. The Virginia strategy would also appeal to voters in Colorado, Nevada, and North Carolina, and would probably be bolstered by a mobilization of young voters and minority groups, who make up a significant share of the electorate in those states.

I say "sort-of smart" because there is indeed a real cultural difference between rapidly professionalising states in the South and the West and the traditional working class heartland of the Rust Belt. Obama's ability to appeal to voters in places like North Carolina and Colorado was a big of his victory in 2008, and, as I discussed in a column last month, his ability to appeal to those voters remains an important factor in his quest for a second term. But that doesn't mean he must choose between alienating Western and Southern voters with populism or distancing himself from blue collar workers with centrism.

Obama's failure to come to a bipartisan accord on the debt ceiling with Republicans  over the summer hurt his reputation with voters across the country. He didn't find his approval ratings plummeting in Ohio but buoyed in Virginia. And there's a lot of cause to think that young and minority voters, who, as Kraushaar says, make up a significant share of the electorate in Southern and Western states, will be far more attuned to "populist" arguments than they would centrist ones. After all, though unemployment is hurting all kinds of Americans, young, Black and Hispanic voters are feeling the effects far more than most. Latino service works in Las Vegas, students in Colorado, and African Americans in Richmond may well prefer to hear the president talking about jobs and inequality than trying for yet another compromise on Washington esoterica.

But certainly, the populist tack appears to be working in the Rust Belt. It's important not to read too much into the state and local elections held earlier this month. Democratic successes, such as the rejection of a bill restricting union rights in Ohio and the failure of an anti-abortion measure in Mississippi, say more about the public's limited tolerance for conservative adventurism than they predict any result next year. But it's worth heeding Michael Tomaskey's evaluation of Obama's chances in states like Ohio:

The conventional wisdom laid down by the geniuses who lay down the conventional wisdom is that Obama — any Democratic president, or any Democrat, really — can either play to the base or the middle but can’t possibly reach both. Oh, he can compartmentalize and triangulate a little, throwing this scrap to the base, that bone to the middle. But he fundamentally can’t please both.

In fairness, there have been times in the past when that was true. The base didn’t want NAFTA in the first Clinton term, and the center did. So Clinton chose. One among many possible examples. But we’re in a different historical circumstance now. Now, base and center, or certainly enough of the center, agree that something has to be done to make American society more equitable and just. I think of the way the 1992 election came to be about health care — an “issue palette,” as they say, that automatically favors Democrats. If the White House plays its cards right, 2012 could be about inequality. The Democrat can’t possibly lose an election about inequality.

"Can't possibly lose" is far too strong. It's still too early to make much in the way of useful predictions about 2012. But Obama faces steep challenges and, even in an election played out on comfortable Democratic terrain like inequality, the president could still lose.

Obama came to the White House by appealing to a broad range of voters in a diverse array of states. His path to a second term lies not in choosing one set over the other, but again uniting that coalition. And no matter their differences, they're all facing an economy in which opportunity is tight and advancement is difficult. If Obama wants to please those voters, he needs to solve those problems.

And as for the supercommittee? Americans barely know what it is: 

In a Politico/George Washington University national poll, 50 per cent — yes, half the country! — said they were “not at all familiar” with the supercommittee while 38 percent said they were only “somewhat familiar” with it. That means that almost nine out of every ten Americans lack even the vaguest notion of what the supercommittee is — much less what its tasked with doing.

This election won't be about "populism" or "centrism." It will be about solving problems, rather than getting bogged down in something unimportant that few voters care about.

18 November 2011