The Nonpartisan Wish

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Bill Keller defends an "easily mocked" centrism inveighing against "many on the left" and Rick Santorum:


The middle is not the home of bland, split-the-difference politics, or a cult that worships bipartisan process for its own sake. Swing voters have views; they are just not views that all come from any one party's menu. 

Researchers at Third Way, a Clintonian think tank, have assembled a pretty plausible composite profile of these up-for-grabs voters. 

¶Swing voters tend to be fiscal conservatives, meaning they are profoundly worried about deficits and debt.

¶They are mostly economic moderates, meaning they are free-marketers but expect government to help provide the physical and intellectual infrastructure that creates opportunity. 

¶They are aspirational -- that is, they have nothing against the rich -- but they don't oppose tax increases. 

¶They want the country well protected, but not throwing its weight around in the world. 

¶They tend to be fairly progressive on social issues; they think, for example, that abortion should be discouraged but not prohibited.

How large is the tribe of "Up-For-Grabs?" Ruy Teixeira has answers:

In 2008, according to the University of Michigan's National Election Study (NES), 90 percent of independents who leaned Democratic voted for Obama, actually a higher level of support than among weak Democratic partisans (those who said they were "not very strong" Democrats), 84 percent of whom voted for Obama. Among Republican-leaning independents, a still-high 78 percent voted for McCain, compared to 88 percent support among weak Republican identifiers. Evidently, these two groups are quite different animals. 

On the one hand, we have a group of "independents" who voted 90 percent for Barack Obama. Moreover, as Alan Abramowitz and others have shown, the policy views of Democratic-leaning independents look just like the policy views of Democratic identifiers. On the other, we have a group of "independents" who voted 78 percent for John McCain and have policy views that look just like Republican identifiers. Clearly it does tremendous violence to the data to lump these two disparate groups together and give them a label--"independents"--that implies they do not have partisan inclinations. 

Yet the "independent" group does include one sub-group whose members look and act more like swing voters. This is the so-called pure independents subgroup, those who say they do not lean toward either party. In 2008, they split their vote much more evenly between the parties--51-41 for Obama--and they have policy views that are not closely aligned with either party. But this is a small group, and because it tends to show low information, low involvement, and relatively low turnout, it is even smaller in the context of an actual election. In 2008, according to the NES, they were just 7 percent of all voters and only 20 percent of nominally independent voters. 

Contra Keller, I don't find it hard to defend the notion that a pure Tea Party candidacy or a Move On.org candidacy could prevail in a presidential race. Very few lefties I know mistake their hard-core views with the views of the country at large. There's a difference between believing that, say, the rise in Predator drone bombings are a mistake, and thinking that it's a winning political issue. Likewise, there's a difference between opposing the repeal of DADT and believing it should be a campaign's lead issue. That idea that you can't win with merely the hardest partisans seems to me incredibly easy to defend and actually quite hard to mock.

But the fact is that partisanship--and hardcore partisans--are indispensable. Whatever, one thinks of the Tea Party, their success in 2010 is obvious. Whatever one thinks of the Iraq War, had Obama not voiced his opposition at a Chicago rally of lefty partisans, his road to the presidency would have been more fraught. The trick of politics is not to simply tack quickly to the middle, it is to convey sincerity to your true-believers and inspire as many others as possible to truly believe in you. Both have to happen.

With that said, these op-eds bemoaning partisanship, clutching pearls at the radicalism of Rick Santorum, and praying for candidacy in the mold of Mike Bloomberg always seem a little too close to home. Is it a mistake that they tend to reflect the political biases of a news media that is as freaked out by radical pro-lifers as it is by radical anti-war protesters? I allow that that is a subjective observation, it's mostly based on my 15 years in media. But the person Keller describes sounds suspiciously familiar to me. I've usually referred to him (or her) as "my editor." 

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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