Thoughts on the Beyond the Ballot Conference by a Traditional, Just-Left-of-Center Southern Democratic Voter
First of all, the many thanks to the Bipartisan Policy Center for putting on a great conference. The panels were smart and to the point, the moderators asked probing questions, the panelists were all expert-level analysts in their field, and questions from the audience were (for the most part) outstanding inquiries that were handled, moderated and answered well by the folks on the stage. This was an incredibly educational experience, and one that was made accessible to more than policy wonks or political hobbyists; there was a lot of complex material covered in a short amount of time, but it was presented in a way that made sense.
I hope they will host this conference in New Orleans every year.
I was also glad to see that there are folks with clout in Washington seriously addressing the structural issues of our current government dysfunction, especially the problems with the way our nation currently gerrymanders political districts and how Washington’s schedules diminish the professional atmosphere of government. The tone of the whole conference was collegial, professional and civil, exactly the things that don’t seem present in our larger politics and media today.
That being said, I do have some serious critiques.
“Beyond the Ballot” was billed as “brining the Beltway to New Orleans,” and they absolutely delivered on that. While there were a few notable exceptions, this was an insider’s conference. Now, make no mistake, it was supposed to be that way, and that was the billing. But that’s an awful lot of ex-Clinton and ex-Bush aides in one room. Furthermore, the overwhelming demographics of this group (mostly middle-aged men of Caucasian or Jewish ethnicity) just goes to show how monolithic political thought still is from that standpoint.
Now, I get that politics these days are overwhelmingly partisan in needless or hyperbolic ways, and I get that such can wreck the functionality of our governing and information institutions. But I also wonder how much worry over “bipartisanism” is just a macro fear of changing demographics? With changing demographics come changing politics and methods of communication.
Civility and principled partisanship are not mutually exclusive. I’m very glad Paul Begala made this point. At some point, you have to wonder how much of the conference was talking about partisan politics and how much of the conference was talking about civility. Bipartisanship does not always mean compromise on “principles.” It damn sure doesn’t mean “let the Republican or conservative panelists say whatever they want while the Democratic or liberal panelists concede points.” There were several moments where this was infuriating, because in our current political atmosphere, “bipartisan” has somehow come to mean one side “compromising” while the other side refuses to do so.
Luckily, there were a few panelists who refused to concede the conversation.
One notable concession was leaving the following narrative unchallenged: “Polls show that independent voters are closer to the GOP on principles and issues.” I would posit that polls show independent voters closer to GOP on GOP marketing.
Because while they’re important, “the wrong direction for the country” and “the government doing too much” aren’t principles or issues. When the polls get more specific, like extending the Bush tax cuts or repealing and replacing the Health Care law, independents line up with stated GOP positions at only 51%. When plurality is questionable within the margin of error, that doesn’t a mandate make.
Now, the polls examined at the BTB conference did show massive swings in independent voter support – waves for Democrats in 2006 and 2008, Republicans in 2010. What was never examined (at least while I was in the room) were the marketing strategies and political narratives that got the independent vote (which was stable, and nearly even, from 1992 to 2006) swinging in the first place. A cratering economy can do that. What was examined was the erosion of trust in either party to handle the economy.
Which I found surprising, considering the demonstrable nosedive we were in at the beginning of the Obama administration has been replaced by a steady economic uptick since bottoming out in those first few months. That voters would blame Obama and the Democratic Congress for an bad economy when said economy is in better shape in every possible way than when they found it is a testimony to how important marketing, advertising and narrative are to our culture and political discourse. Of course, as it was noted, the voters in 2010 were very different, demographically, from voters in 2008.
One audience member did effectively ask why the voters voted for Obama before voting against him. He didn’t phrase it that way, but he got raucous applause anyway.
Critique of the current President was ample, and that was the only place I heard discussion of marketing and narrative. Polls indicate: Voters thought he spent too much time on health care and not enough time on jobs. Voters did not like the bailout, the stimulus, or the automaker bailout; even though all of them have appeared to work, without outright nationalization as feared, voters are punishing those they feel are responsible. Analysts indicate: The President didn’t adequately tie all of these programs to job creation. The President ran on health care, made health care the priority, and then left it to polarizing figures in the Congress to argue about it for months. Can’t argue with any of that.
The concession came when a Republican pollster stated “voters elected Obama to change Washington, not to change America.” Zing! And no one challenged that.
Look. America has changed. America is changing. Fundamentally. One very good point made during the conference is that the American people are dealing with fundamental failures in almost all of our cultural institutions: government, business, education, religion and even sports. The only national institution in which people have faith is the military, and that’s not a very stable place to be as a nation.
That’s what is creating so much fear and uncertainty. The President is an embodiment of that change, but is not the source of it. Government can recognize and respond to these changes, or it can stagnate. Unfortunately, our history indicates we will choose to stagnate for as long as possible before something terrible will force us to accept reality. (Please see also: 1850, Compromise of; US racial History, 1877 to 1965)
Even with all the fear and uncertainty and change, America is not changing in the way the right wing, Tea Party and the GOP claim it is. These points were never challenged. As a matter of fact, there was a great deal of deference to the Tea Party.
The idea that politicians and the media are the institutions demonizing the Tea Party is a cognitive disconnect so deeply held I start to lose faith that this nation can survive it (until I read some history where we have, in the past, because people stopped putting up with crap). Folks, let me make this clear: the Tea Party needs no help demonizing itself. They do so whenever they are in front of the camera, the microphone, or communicating in any other way.
I wish we had an actual movement in this nation expressing libertarian, foundational views of this republic; I’ve long held that I may not agree with Ron Paul or Paul Ryan on the issues, but they are legitimately held positions that represent a legitimate understanding of history and economics, and represent a competing vision for this country’s future. I think there are some individuals who consider themselves “Tea Partiers” who believe that they are doing something similar.
The Tea Party I have seen is not that, however. In their own words, it has morphed into a Christianist, xenophobic and intolerant movement that supports high spending, government violation of civil liberties, religious oppression, endless war (Iran is next!), subsidization of the uberwealthy and unilateral foreign policy. Once they have enunciated those positions, they turn around and posses the historical amnesia to dismiss hard-fought American social advancements, and ascribe tyrant status to President Obama and Democratic members of Congress for “controlling every aspect of our lives” in ways that the government has done for decades, if not centuries. These aren’t new arguments, by the way.
Remember what the Tea Party explicitly thinks and states about people like me.
So color me surprised that so much was said about the Tea Party at a bipartisan-topic conference without mentioning any of that. Instead, there was a deep level of respect demonstrated as if the Tea Party has exhibited some sort of monolithic, coherent policy positions that Washington Republicans and Democrats must now take into their political calculus. The Tea Party wants things, and they want to oppose everything about President Obama. How will they react in the next two years if they don’t get what they want from the GOP or if the GOP attempts to find common ground with the President (it is possible)?
One of the things that was mentioned was "letting the air out of the tire" or "relieving the pressure" - that pressure being voter anger at government, specifically Tea Party anger - and how the GOP would A) try to do that to reestablish a type of order or B) try to keep the voter anger going and leverage it against the President. Of course, both come with risks and rewards. On the one hand, doing what the Tea Party wants might lessen the number of primary challenges to GOP incumbents. On the other hand, you've got to keep the base involved.
Of course, we've seen which track was taken over the past several years. Even if they didn't want to talk about it at the conference, I think we already know which direction they'll take. And that direction does not lead to more bipartisan solutions.