THE RETURN TO...

THE RETURN TO NORMALCY. Here's a brief attempt at a grand unified theory of Tuesday's election:

Think of the Republican Party as caught in the middle of an attempt to retreat back to a state of normal or equilibrium politics, after creating and exploiting a singularity, an unsustainable period of polarization around huge ideological questions and ultra-high-risk political tactics.

If you need a baseball metaphor, think of a baserunner who stole second, thought he could steal third, and is now scrambling to get back ahead of the throw. If you need a financial metaphor, it's a hedge fund frantically trying to unwind its positions before they become worthless -- in effect, the last days of Long-Term Capital Management in 1998.

And the Democratic mission is to make sure they cannot get safely back to normalcy.

What do I mean by normal or equilibrium politics? I'm not using some arcane jargon of political theory, but just the mundane truisms of punditry and political science: Local politics matters. People generally have disdain for Congress but like their own representatives. Wars are stressful and politically unpopular. If you want voters to feel good about the economy, you need to show increases in real hourly wages and in median household income. Swing voters hold the key to elections. Negative campaigns carry a cost, and should be a last resort. A big bipartisan victory gives you more legitimacy than a narrow and partisan one. Women are key swing voters. American voters are usually more comfortable with pragmatic solutions than grand ideological visions.

Karl Rove and George Bush apparently love the concept of �gamechangers� -- initiatives that don't just win an advantage in the current set of rules, but that dramatically and for a long time change the rules or build in a distinct advantage for their party. I've written about those gamechangers in other contexts, and Tom Edsall and the team of Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger have chronicled them in more detail. (See my review of their two books here.)

All of the assumptions above were challenged, and for a time were overturned, in the 2002 and 2004 elections. The Republicans went for narrow victories, used war -- and even torture -- as a positive, cared not a wit about median incomes, focused on expanding their base rather than winning over swing voters, used the intensity of their support from men work the gender gap in their favor (and used security concerns to win over married women), and made grand ideological choices (tax cuts, gay marriage, Iraq war) the currency of politics, even as they often ignored or betrayed those choices in governing.

The gamechangers held us in shock and awe for most of a decade, and like high-risk hedge fund tactics, were brilliant and unbeatable until they weren�t.

The return to normal politics is palpable. For example, take Wallsten and Hamburger's most recent panegyric to the genius of Rove, which depicts him jetting around to Republican rallies to announce new funding here and there for snowstorm relief or breast cancer awareness. Shameless, yes, but still very much standard-issue pork-barrel politics. No grand clash of good and evil, no attempt to mobilize some new category of voters. In contrast, the tactics the same authors describe in One Party Country are innovative and daring, such as setting up the whole faith-based initiative (better known in the White House as the �f�-ing faith-based thing,� according to David Kuo) and using it to finance election rallies for African-American as well as white evangelicals, part of Rove�s effort to extend the party�s base in two directions. Now George Allen is trying to appeal to women, and the dirty tricks are directed at swing voters, not evangelicals.

The Republicans' scramble away from the sharp �Are-you-with-us-or-against-us� to the more mundane focus on the economy, on local politics and local situations, and on the promise of a more subtle approach to Iraq is an enormous change, in effect a concession that the huge gamble has reached its limits.

On the other hand, it�s also a mark of adaptability, also a Rove strategy -- push things to the very edge, and then change, while admitting nothing. But these are difficult positions to unwind. There�s no undoing Iraq, no easy return to conciliatory politics, no re-localizing elections that were gleefully nationalized.

If Republicans hold either house tomorrow, it will not be because their old tactics still worked, but because Democrats let them, in effect, renormalize politics, rather than paying a huge price for the polarization and high-risk tactics of the last few years. And for Democrats, the challenge after the election will be in figuring out just how the political context has changed in the wake of the collapse of this high-flying scheme. Some will be looking for �gamechangers� of our own, such as remaking politics around an us-them economic populism. Others look like much more practical politicians, who will be most comfortable with the idea of a return to safe political verities of the 1990s.

The answer is not obvious. American politics will never be the same after the experience of the last six years. It will be a post-traumatic era, made worse by the political choices involved in cleaning up the twin disaster of Iraq and fiscal policy. To move on, we may need to take some risks of our own.

--Mark Schmitt

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