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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

All Politics is Local, Except when it Ain't...

Update: This poll from NBC was released aftermy post, my certainly confirms my assessment of the political environment: "Perhaps most troubling for Mr. Obama and the Democrats is that independents are souring on them. That bloc backed Democrats in 2006 and 2008. Now, by a nearly 2 to 1 margin, independents said they would prefer Republicans to control Congress after November."

Original Post:
Former Democratic House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill once famously said that all politics is local - meaning that the problems and concerns of people in our towns and cities influence the decisions of elected officials and are the driving force behind elections - whether for Mayor or President. I have a great deal of respect for O'Neill, but I would argue that sometimes our politics is quite national - by that I mean that issues and concerns of national important influence how people vote at all levels. I believe that is what we are witnessing in Massachusetts as little known Republican State Senator Scott Brown stands on the verge of winning the U.S. Senate seat long held by the late (and great) Ted Kennedy. That a Republican is poised to win the seat once occupied by the Liberal Lion of the U.S. Senate in a state that has not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972 suggests that what is happening in Massachusetts is not simply "a local issue." Rather Massachusetts has become ground zero for ongoing public discontent with Washington politics, the state of the economy, and a year of unfulfilled promises by President Obama and the Democratic Congress. Promises of bipartisanship, openess, and end to special interest control of the agenda have all fallen by the wayside. Instead of openness major legislation like the Economic Recovery Act was negotiated in secret, the normal procedures for House and Senate Conference bypassed, Health Reform has followed a similar path and promises of bipartisanship melted away as quickly as the January snow following President Obama's inauguration, the President engaged in secret negotiations with the Pharmaceutical lobby and made considerable concession to win their support for health reform, more recently labor unions won concessions exempting union workers from paying the proposed tax on high end insurance plans (as proposed in the reform bill passed in the Senate).

In 2008, Barack Obama rode a wave of populist anger into the White House. Voters were angry about Wall Street bailouts, angry about a sluggish economy, about retirement plans that suddenly lost 40% of their value. During the course of the past year President Obama has come to symbolize, in the eyes of many voters, the very system that he ran against. It's no coincidence that Republican Bob McDonnell in Virginia and Scott Brown in Massachusetts have been able to tap into that populism and have run campaigns modeled after Obama’s 2008 effort. If one looks to the voters that were crucial to Obama’s victory in 2008 you can see no group more important than the growing number of Independent voters who broke overwhelmingly for Obama. That same group of voters broke 2 to 1 for McDonnell in Virginia, for Republican Chris Christie in New Jersey, and according to polls are favoring Scott Brown by the same margin in Massachusetts.

This shift among Independents should frighten Democrats going into 2010. According to the most recent polling, the partisan advantage briefly enjoyed by Democrats after the 2006 and 2008 election has gone. Democrats, Republicans and Independents now stand at near parity with each claiming about 1/3 of the electorate (with Independents actually claiming a plurality). Democrats cannot maintain their majority hold on the machinery of national government without breaking even among Independents. Be clear, Independents have not suddenly fallen in love with the Republican party – but at the moment it is the only other viable option, and they seem to be taking it. Democrats need to figure out how to reclaim the precious middle – they could start by living up to their own campaign promises from 2006 and 2008