I first encountered the word Zugzwang in a 1985 New York Times Magazine column by the late William Safire. It’s a chess term that means “compelled to move, but imperiled by doing so.” The word’s political implications are profound.
For the past 25 years, I’ve regularly witnessed the repercussions of that hard-to-pronounce term. During the 1990s, my friend Arne Christenson (who served as chief of staff to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich) and I would lament some thorny political problem faced by Republicans or Democrats and how being “compelled to move” would cause unavoidable collateral political damage. Arne would just shake his head and say, “Zugzwang.” We both knew exactly what he meant.
Barack Obama and congressional Democrats face their own version of Zugzwang today. The party needs an energized and enthused base going into November midterm elections. That means trying to forge ahead on health care and other parts of a congressional agenda backed by liberals. Yet moderate Democrats worry these ambitious plans portend electoral disaster.
Outside the Beltway, independent voters – a pivotal bloc that helped Democrats capture the congressional majority in 2006 and Barack Obama the White House two years later – tell pollsters today they agree more with the moderates.
So should Democrats and President Obama pursue an activist agenda and please the party base, or pull back the throttle and play small ball to attract independents?
They can’t do both. Welcome to Zugzwang.
One reaction is paralysis – a little bit of this, a little bit of that. It feels like movement, but to the outside world, it looks like you’re stuck. Safire agreed. He argued, sometimes the slogan of people in Zugzwang is ''Don't just do something, stand there.''
Yet this kind of paralysis saps energy and intensity from a party’s core supporters and doesn’t do much to inspire independents either. Call it: curbed enthusiasm.
Republicans saw the repercussions of curbed enthusiasm in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles. Relative to the Democrats, the GOP lacked fire in the belly, creating a host of problems including difficulties raising money, recruiting top-flight candidates and attracting volunteers. Many factors caused the intensity deficit, but one thing was clear: No matter how hard leaders and activists tried, the party’s fortunes sunk deeper into the electoral muck.
Today the tables have turned. Democrats now face the intensity gap. It’s evident in recent voting patterns. Democrats lost in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races and the special election for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts due to marginally lower turnout among Democrats in those states.
We see similar patterns in public and private surveys. When pollsters ask citizens about their interest in elections or their likelihood to vote, Democrats are not as enthused as they were in 2006 and 2008. “Fired up and ready to go” now better describes the Republicans.
What can Democrats and the president do about it? Last week two conflicting answers emerged. According to news reports, Senator Al Franken of Minnesota scolded White House aide David Axlerod at a Democratic retreat, suggesting the president wasn’t pushing a progressive agenda hard enough. Yet when the president met with the same group, Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas lamented that some of her constituents believe Washington politicians don’t know how to meet a private payroll in the business world.
And there’s another problem. In 2006 Republicans controlled all the levers of power. In 2008, even with a Democratic majority in Congress, George Bush was still in the Oval Office. For Democratic activists and the weaker partisans they pull along with them, there was what online activist Jon Henke calls a “storming the fortress” kind of mentality. The “out” party wanted to win very badly. This mindset produced energy and motivation on the part of Democrats.
That’s missing today. And what’s more disconcerting for the president and his congressional allies, taking steps to motivate the party’s base hurts among independents. Similarly, reaching out to independents fails to fire up the base.
It is unclear Mr. Obama can solve this dilemma. Sometimes the party in power just needs to take its lumps in midterm elections. An improving economy by November might help. But now that Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress, keeping activists motivated while at the same time attracting disproportionate numbers of independents is a daunting challenge.
Mr. Obama and the Democrats clearly face Zugzwang. The only question is whether it means checkmate for the current congressional majority this November.