Last November, as members of the House of Representatives considered the health care reform bill, President Obama made a dramatic trip to Capitol Hill. After closing down sixteen blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue, a half-mile long White House motorcade whisked the presidential entourage past cheering tourists to meet with the House Democratic Caucus.
Despite the drama, these trips rarely occur if the outcome is unknown. No sense aggravating a bunch of taxi drivers if you’re not going to win.
When he arrived before the roaring group of lawmakers, the president oozed transformational hyperbole. Even lowly House members could “make history” by passing the measure, the president apparently told his audience, according to news accounts.
But not everyone bought the narrative.
“He can make history,” one conservative Democrat reportedly said after the meeting. “But I’ll be history if I vote for that thing.”
Notwithstanding those concerns, we all know how the story ended.
Democratic partisans hoped enacting health care would boost the president’s and Congress’s sagging popularity, particularly with fickle independent voters that supported Democrats in 2006 and 2008, but have moved decidedly in the GOP’s direction this year.
The same calculus motivated the Democratic leadership’s sales pitch for stimulus legislation, cap-and-trade, and the Wall Street reform bill.
Legislative success produces political popularity, Democrats argue. Bill Clinton and his party, after all, lost the majority in Congress in 1994 because they failed to pass health care, right?
Yet despite all the legislative notches carved in their belts, Democratic prospects for 2010 still look bleak. It turns out congressional productivity isn’t political alchemy after all.
Some believe it’s content, not volume, hurting the Democrats. But that argument explains only part of the problem. Other clouds contribute to Obama and his party’s dreary political state. Indeed, nagging fears about the economy also deepen voter angst.
The party in power catches the brunt of the political fallout from a bad economy, and this year, independents appear ready to take out their frustrations surrounding stubbornly high unemployment on the Democrats.
But beyond policy disagreements and a languid economy, I believe a third explanation deserves consideration, particularly when it comes to that often pivotal 10 to 15 percent of the electorate: Independents do not identify or lean toward one party or the other.
These voters, by and large, value balance. By more than a 2-1 margin, an April 2010 Resurgent Republic poll found independents favored a Republican Congress to serve as a check-and-balance on President Obama compared to a Democratic Congress to help the White House pass its agenda.
So what have these voters witnessed from Washington in the past eighteen months? First, a president who promised to rise above partisanship. Second, a Democratic majority in Congress with the means to accomplish its goals without any Republican support on major issues like stimulus, cap-and-trade, health care, and Wall Street reform.
Together, these two factors sowed seeds of doubt among independents.
A Republican political consultant I talked to elaborated. “What I’ve seen in polling and focus groups is that a red flag goes up with these independents when they watch what has happened over the past year or so. They wonder how it can be that nearly everyone from one party is for something and everyone from the other party is against it. Something fishy must be going on!”
A Democratic lobbyist I talked to agreed. “George Bush and Barack Obama have one thing in common. Neither one wanted to pick big fights with their own party. Both had a figurative chat with their congressional leaders who told them, ‘Mr. President you can do this the hard way or the easy way.’ Both Bush and Obama chose ‘the easy way’ which meant a no confrontation approach with your party and walking in lockstep against the other side. That turns off independents.”
Strong partisan behavior always aggravates voters with weak or nonexistent partisan ties. Collective decisions by the president and his party leaders in Congress to bypass Republicans over the past eighteen months have contributed to a sharp decline in Democrats’ standing with independent voters. And as a result, there won’t be nearly as many cheerleaders in the majority party when Obama comes to call on the Hill this winter.