The Sweet Spot (Are You in the Middle?)

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From Bill Keller in the NYT:


The middle is not the home of bland, split-the-difference politics, or a cult that worships bipartisan process for its own sake. Swing voters have views; they are just not views that all come from any one party’s menu. Researchers at Third Way, a Clintonian think tank, have assembled a pretty plausible composite profile of these up-for-grabs voters.

1. Swing voters tend to be fiscal conservatives, meaning they are profoundly worried about deficits and debt.

2. They are mostly economic moderates, meaning they are free-marketers but expect government to help provide the physical and intellectual infrastructure that creates opportunity.

3. They are aspirational — that is, they have nothing against the rich — but they don’t oppose tax increases.

4. They want the country well protected, but not throwing its weight around in the world.

5. They tend to be fairly progressive on social issues; they think, for example, that abortion should be discouraged but not prohibited.

Bruce Gyory, who studies voting trends at the State University of New York at Albany, says the swing voters are predominantly white and suburban, have at least some college, and have decent incomes. In this time of precarious jobs, devalued homes and shriveled retirement savings, they are more anxious than angry, more interested in fixing the future than in affixing blame for the past.

Swing voters, I think, are looking not for a checklist of promises but for a type of leader — a problem-solver, a competent steward, someone who understands them and has a convincing optimism. We don’t know exactly how they identify that candidate, but it is some mix of past performance (especially for the incumbent), campaign messaging and chemistry.

Romney’s obvious dilemma is that he has been herded by his right-wing rivals into positions many in the middle would find alienating. On the economy, he played into the caricature of himself as heartless and out of touch. On foreign policy, he has all but made Bibi Netanyahu his running mate; the middle is not keen on new foreign adventures. He allowed the gender gap to grow into a gulf by assailing Planned Parenthood and refusing to stand up with any conviction to the crude misogyny of Rush Limbaugh. The size of the gap is a result of women swing-voters being repelled by Republican attitudes, and so far his attempts to win them back have been inept at best.

In the Democratic Party, a battle for Obama’s teleprompter is now under way between the moderates and the more orthodox left. The president sometimes, as in his last two State of the Union addresses, plays the even-keel, presidential pragmatist, sounding themes of balance and opportunity. Then sometimes lately he sounds more as if he’s trying out for the role of Robin Hood.

The problem isn’t that the Buffett Rule is necessarily a bad idea. It isn’t that “social Darwinism” is a slander on Republicans. (Heck, it may be the only Darwinism Romney believes in.) The problem is that when Obama thrusts these populist themes to the center of his narrative, he sounds a little desperate. The candidate who ran on hope — promising to transcend bickering and get things done — is in danger of sounding like the candidate of partisan insurgency. Just as Romney was unconvincing as a right-wing scourge, Obama, a man lofty in his visions but realistic in his governance, feels inauthentic playing a plutocrat-bashing firebrand. The role the middle really wants him to play, I think, is president.

Mar. 14, 2012 7:11 am

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