When will they ever learn?

by Ken Feltman

Independent voters are always tugging presidential administrations back to the middle. But presidents resist the tugging and lose the support of the swing voters in the middle.
– Ken Feltman, Radnor Geopolitical Report, September 2009

After Republicans won the gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia earlier this month, readers from inside and outside the United States flooded me with questions. Many didn’t see it coming or did see it coming but went into denial. Others are upset. A few gloated. More wondered what it means.

Politicians are so focused on the next election that they rarely spend time looking back at past elections. They miss the lessons that past elections could teach them. Please read what I wrote in September (above and below):

Moderates may not stick with the person or party that they supported in the last election. They are called independents because they are. They tend to line up against the expansion of federal power. Thus, the moderates swing the country. This pattern repeats throughout U.S. history, but politicians get caught up in the issues of the day and forget the general rule: Moderates almost always oppose what they perceive as bigger government.

Stated another way, the American people are quite consistent in opposition to bigger government because moderates almost always oppose expansion of government.

The independents are still out there and they get to decide (Gwen Ifill, PBS)

The independents did it again: They tugged at Obama and sent a message to get back to the middle. If the president moves back toward the center and scales back his grand plans, he will win reelection in 2012. If not, and the Republicans field a credible candidate, Obama will be a one-term president. If that happens, most Americans will be saddened. They genuinely like the president and his family. Honestly, they are proud to be led by an African-American. They feel better about themselves and their country because Obama was elected a year ago.

Voters will not want to turn Obama out, but they will. They always have when a president has strayed too far from the middle. That is the lesson of many other elections. It may be the lesson of 2012. But it is not a lesson for 2009.

This year has two notable lessons: First, the Republicans are not much stronger now than before the voting. If one of the two newly elected governors becomes presidential material, however, then some significance will attach to this year’s voting.

Secondly, the right wing of the Republican Party is again drawing incorrect lessons, this time from the results in an upstate New York congressional district that had not elected a Democrat for a century and a half. The conservatives believe that the loss of a Republican seat is the fault of moderate Republicans who supported a Democrat rather than a conservative. Many other issues and cross-currents played out in that New York district – a district that likely will elect a Republican in 2010 and then disappear in the redistricting following the 2010 census.

The simple fact is that the conservatives are arguing their case against all U.S. history: This is a country that wants to be governed from the center. Candidates of the far right or extreme left will always have a difficult time gaining and retaining power. Presidents Reagan (further right than his party) and Obama (further left than his) won because the other party nominated a weak candidate who carried the baggage of an unsuccessful incumbent.

Thus, if the GOP can nominate a centrist, Obama will be in trouble. But the Republicans repeatedly teach us all another lesson, election after election: The GOP rarely nominates the most electable candidate. Worse, right now, it is hard to find an electable GOP presidential candidate. All now mentioned (or mentioning themselves) are flawed and will need a weak Democrat to have a chance to win.

Obama controls his future

This is why many Democrats are smiling. Incumbent presidents are rarely weak. The office makes presidents formidable. Whatever happens in the 2010 elections, Obama will need to shoot himself in many more feet than he already has to be defeated. Another, older lesson of politics is that you can’t beat somebody with nobody. Any conservative nominated by the GOP is likely to stir conservative passions, but lose in the end. So the Republicans must hope that Obama turns into Carter. He might. But hoping the other guy is fatally weak is hardly the stuff of winning strategy.

Obama’s present leftward course is likely to end the careers of Democratic senators and congressman, governors and state legislators in 2010. But by 2012, Obama will have been forced toward the center. Against a weak or too conservative Republican, Obama will do what President Clinton did in 1996: He will win. The first duty of a politician is to get elected. Till the Republicans learn to read the history books, they will keep winning pyrrhic victories, not elections. The Democrats are very lucky to have Republicans as their opposition. New Jersey, Virginia and an upstate New York congressional seat do not change that equation.

Conservatives provide the workers and leaders for the GOP; Liberals and unions provide the workers and leaders of the Democratic Party. They pull their parties to the extremes. They are loud and forceful, often colorful and quotable – but they are not very electable.

The path to success for candidates of both parties is to drift toward the center. That has been true for at least two centuries. But politicians think that they are making the future. They seldom learn from the past.

About Radnor Reports

Ken Feltman is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists. He is retired chairman of Radnor Inc., an international political consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Known as a coalition builder, he has participated in election campaigns and legislative efforts in the United States and several other countries.
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