Friday, May 6, 2011

Beware passion gap 2012


“Let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11,” President Barack Obama said Sunday night, when he announced the death of Osama bin Laden. OK. With Sept. 11, it lasted one year — until September 2002, when the Bush administration began the “Iraq War rollout.”

Three presidents before Obama tried to unite a divided country. We’ve had national trauma, military victories and charismatic leaders. Yet division has persisted. In May 1991, President George H.W. Bush, still basking in the glow of Operation Desert Storm, was at 74 percent in the polls. A year and a half later, dragged down by a recession, he got 31 percent of the vote.

Could that be Obama’s fate?

“It’s not a strong field, and who knows if [the Republicans] could beat you in 2012?’’ Seth Meyers, head writer of “Saturday Night Live,” said to Obama at Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner. “I’ll tell you who could beat you: 2008 Barack Obama.’’

What’s the difference between Obama ’08 and Obama ’12? Passion. The passion gap worked in Obama’s favor in 2008. Now, it’s working against him.

Today, Obama’s opponents have the edge on passion. Their passion sometimes spills over into hatred.

Racism? That’s part of it. But we also saw the passion gap in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton-haters took over the GOP and drove it into a catastrophic impeachment effort.

The right is typically more passionate than the left. That’s why conservatives tend to win battles over gun rights and taxes and same-sex marriage. They are more watchful and intense — and better funded and organized. They let politicians know that, if they dare to take the wrong position, a posse of voters will be coming after them.

The left usually gets passionate when there’s an anti-war issue. In that case, the passion gap tilts in their favor and Democrats win, as in 2006 and 2008. But when there is no Vietnam or Iraq controversy, the right is typically more angry and intense. That’s what sustains the talk radio industry.

The left is more given to earnestness (Al Gore) and satire (Michael Moore). The right has a keener sense of conspiracy and betrayal.

And paranoia. Hence the birther controversy. Some conservatives hate Obama so much that they are willing to accept anything bad you say about him. Just as many on the right believed Clinton was implicated in Arkansas cocaine-smuggling and in the death of Vince Foster, his deputy White House counsel, and others. His enemies called it the “Clinton body count.”

Obama was elected with a clear majority, so his enemies have taken to challenging his legal qualifications to be president.

The release of Obama’s long-form birth certificate will not end the controversy. Paranoid people don’t respond to facts. Obama probably did it to satisfy the nonparanoid majority — and showcase Donald Trump as the wacky face of his opposition. (Most of Obama’s jokes Saturday night were targeted at Trump — who sat scowling in the audience at The Washington Post’s table.)

Public opinion polls don’t measure intensity well. They can tell you the number of people on each side — but not whether they feel so strongly that the issue is likely to drive their vote. That’s what matters to politicians.

Let’s say you take a poll of your constituents, and it shows that 75 percent support gun control. Doesn’t it make sense for you to support sensible gun control? Not necessarily.

If you do, you are likely to write off a lot of votes from the minority who disagree with you — and who could vote against you for that reason alone. You are not likely to gain many gun control supporters who will vote for you for that reason alone. It’s a voting issue for the minority, not the majority.

That can change after a sensational incident of gun violence like the shootings in Tucson or at Virginia Tech. Suddenly, there is a passionate constituency demanding new gun laws. But their passion is usually not sustained. And politicians know it. They also know the gun owners are always there — and always watchful.

Take the issue of same-sex marriage. Polls this year reveal that a majority of Americans, for the first time, now favor equal marriage rights for same-sex couples.

But the issue has been put to a popular vote in 31 states. And same-sex marriage has lost every time — most recently in Maine in 2009. The implication: It has been more of a voting issue for opponents than supporters.

Progressives have gotten the message. They’ve taken a page from the tea party. Over the past week, Democratic activists flooded town hall meetings sponsored by congressional Republicans. They were there to protest the House vote to abolish Medicare as we know it — just as tea party activists flooded the 2009 Democratic town halls, to protest health care reform.

Democratic strategists are plotting to close the passion gap for Obama’s reelection campaign. “We have to act not like an incumbent,” campaign manager Jim Messina told supporters. “We have to act like an insurgent campaign.” Which means run the way Obama ran in 2008: against the status quo.

That’s not so easy when you’re the incumbent, with middling popularity, and a base that’s disappointed.

That’s where President George W. Bush was when he ran for reelection in 2004. Bush won a narrow victory (50.7 percent). He did it with a bitter, divisive campaign that fired up the conservative base and demonized his opponent.

Can Obama do that? It’s not really his style. Moreover, the Democratic Party’s liberal base is smaller than the GOP’s conservative base. Conservatives typically outnumber liberals about 2-to-1.

Then there’s the passion gap. A lot of the young voters and minorities who came out in record numbers in 2008 did not show up in last year’s midterms. Their passion for Obama has cooled. Much will depend on Democrats’ ability to rally them to stand up to the threat posed by the tea party and the House Republican majority. “Imagine what would happen if the presidency and Congress both fell to the Republicans.” As Charles Dickens put it, “I wants to make your flesh creep.”

Democrats console themselves that Republicans do not have a candidate who ignites passion. But they shouldn’t kid themselves. Bringing down Obama will be quite enough to stir conservatives’ passions — no matter who the GOP standard-bearer is.

Bill Schneider is the Omer L. and Nancy Hirst professor of public policy at George Mason University and a resident scholar at Third Way.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I want to hear from you but any comment that advocates violence, illegal activity or that contains advertisements that do not promote activism or awareness, will be deleted.