Friday, August 27, 2010

Losing the Middle

Rich Lowry describes what has happened to that comfortable majority that Obama and the Democrats had when they took power after the 2008 election. Essentially, they've lost the middle of the American public. Lowry refers to exit polls since the 1990s on how people describe their ideology.
Since 1992, according to Gallup, ideological opinion has been roughly constant: Self-described moderates have been 40 percent or a little lower; conservatives in the high 30s (although they've spiked to 42 lately); liberals in the high-teens to low-20s.
I've always been a little skeptical of those self-descriptions of people's ideology since I suspect that there are quite a few of those moderates who are mostly liberal, but for some reason eschew that self-description and call themselves moderate. There may be some conservatives who do the same thing, but I suspect that there are fewer of those. Think of politicians like Hillary Clinton who have described themselves as "progressive" rather than liberal. Perhaps she thinks that has better connotations or she prefers the idea that she supports progress rather than liberty. You can often hear politicians describing themselves as "proud conservative" rather than those who call themselves "proud liberals." Remember a Pew poll from 2008 that found that 58% of journalists describe themselves as moderate, while 32% called themselves as liberal or very liberal. Only 8% called themselves conservative or very conservative. Obviously, there is a disconnect there with the ideological self-descriptions of the general public. But how many of those so-called moderates are really liberal?

I also think that, when people are given three choices, they'll tend to pick the one in the middle.

That caveat aside, I think that Lowry is exactly right in describing what has happened to the support and good-will with which Obama entered the White House.
The average of Obama's approval rating among independents is a dismal 37.9 percent. This meltdown should have launched a thousand agonized liberal op-eds, conferences and strategy papers on how to win back the center. If, that is, liberalism had any realistic sense of its limits.

In the midst of a catastrophic loss of the middle, Obama's supporters exhort him to get more angry, insistent and ambitiously liberal. Having already pushed for a bridge too far, they want to go farther still. When they can't, they conclude it's a damning indictment of Obama's failure of nerve and the nation's ungovernablility.

There's little acknowledgment that the country is in a different place than they are. To the extent there is, so much worse for the country, which is condemned for its backwardness and intolerance. The majority is not just wrong on immigration enforcement and the Ground Zero mosque, it's contemptible. Who knew that the American public would get accused of bigotry more often after electing an African-American president than before?

As former Bush speechwriter Peter Wehner writes, liberals "are expressing deepening alienation from our nation and turning on the American people with a vengeance." They thought they had a mandate from heaven in 2008 and can't bear the thought that they deluded themselves. They've gone from triumphalism to a petulant and uncomprehending tantrum in less than two years. The rump majority looks more exhausted by the day.
We'll never know how much of that majority that Obama earned in 2008 was created by the financial crisis and the sense that Obama would be better than McCain in dealing with that. And now that we've seen how he and the congressional Democrats have dealt with that, those middle voters have swung away from the Democrats. If the economy seemed to be growing at a brisk pace and unemployment had dropped down to the numbers it was at during the Bush presidency, the Democrats might well have solidified their majorities this election.

Alas, they chose a different road and that has made all the difference.