The same corporate media pundits who assured us back in 2000 that George W. Bush, given the contested presidential election, would have to "move to the center" are today telling us that the Republican candidates' stoking of the culture war is "toxic" to independent voters and will kill them in the general election. Some of the poll data might back up this view but until I see Republican "over-reach" slapped down and slapped down hard I'm not buying it.
Let's review: Bush lost the popular vote in the 2000 election by 500,000 votes and only slid into the White House because his brother influenced the Florida election and his daddy's friends on the Supreme Court stepped in to hand him the presidency. It wasn't a "close" election; it was a lost election. Yet, if you recall, Bush and Dick Cheney ruled as if they had won by 10 million votes and earned a mandate. The corporate pundits were dead wrong. Bush didn't govern "from the center." Then came 2004 where Bush and Karl Rove ran a base election. They didn't bother to "reach out" to moderates and independents. They instead focused on getting out their Christian fundamentalist base in huge numbers knowing the election was going to be decided either in Ohio or Florida (again). Remember all those anti-gay ballot measures Rove made sure were put on the ballot in those 11 swing states? They ran a base election and won. In 2008 the base strategy reemerged when John McCain named a person who shouldn't be anywhere near power, let alone the presidency, on the ticket for the sole purpose of stoking up the base with shrill right-wing screeds about Obama "palling around with terrorists" and the like. It didn't work that time but they tried.
Then in 2010 the Republican base came roaring back this time in the form of something called the Tea Party. In August 2009, when they showed up at all those town hall meetings screeching about "Obamacare" (which has not ceased) corporate media pundits dismissed the Tea Partiers as a flash in the pants. They won 63 seats in the House of Representatives after 4 million more Republican base voters showed up for the primaries in 2010 than Democrats. In one election they wiped out what took the Democrats two elections to build. (The last time the Republicans took the House they held it for 12 years.) They accomplished this feat in part because President Obama deflated the enthusiasm of his core supporters at about the same time the term "professional left" entered the American political lexicon.
Unlike Bush, who lost the popular vote but ruled as if he had a mandate, Obama won the 2008 election by 10 million votes but ruled as if he had squeaked in. The Obama people should have known that 2010 would be a base election. Going into the first midterm the task was to keep the president's massive base mobilized because, as every first-year political science student knows, the party in power is destined to lose seats in the first midterm. The question was not "if" the Democrats would lose seats in the House in 2010, but "how many." Obama has recently said he's going to accept SuperPAC support because he doesn't want to unilaterally disarm going into 2012. But that didn't stop him from unilaterally disarming going into 2010.
With John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan running the House Obama became, in effect, a lame duck. At best, he took his base for granted; at worst, he so badly wanted to prove he was a team player for the corporate oligarchy he pulled a bait and switch. (Back in 2009 I was among those who tried to warn the president, who I wholeheartedly supported in 2008 and will support in 2012, but it was to no avail.)
President Obama's appointment of Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson to head his deficit reduction committee was a big signal about how little he valued his base. Why would a "liberal" Democratic president appoint a debt commission headed by a conservative "Democrat" and a far-right Republican? Wouldn't it make more sense to have it led by a liberal Democrat and a moderate Republican? The Bowles-Simpson commission, which Obama appointed in early 2010, long before the midterms, was a turning point because it accepted the Republicans' narrative that debt and deficits were the most pressing problem facing the nation. It wasn't until the fall of 2011 with the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement when that narrative started to lose its luster.
President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are fond of repeating the tag line: "Don't compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative." And the "alternative" is very scary. But that strategy won't work for two reasons: 1) The "alternative," with the help of the corporate media, is going to make itself look very "centrist" and very "moderate" just like they did with George W. Bush in 2000; and 2) You cannot spend most of the time of your presidency reaching out to, compromising with, or even furthering the goals of the Republicans only to turn around when facing reelection and tell voters that these people with whom you have worked so closely are so odious and horrific that Americans must vote for you lest the "alternative" destroy the country. If the Republicans are frightening today and should be seen as pariahs then they were just as frightening when Obama was caving to them, whether in the form of the Cat Food commission, or the Tim Geithner/Ben Bernanke coddling of Wall Street, or violating civil liberties such as keeping Guantanamo open, or escalating the Afghan war, and so forth.
Which brings me back to the Republican base strategy. I don't think they care about independent voters. If they did there'd be pressure on them right now to tone down the rhetoric. I think they believe that with enough SuperPAC money and stoking up the base, along with relatively high unemployment and gas prices and millions of underwater mortgage holders, they can win a close election. Why else would states like Virginia and others busily pass all sorts of legislation designed to mobilize the Christian Right? It's not just the presidential candidates who are ginning up the culture wars. This phenomenon is going on all over the country in what appears to be a coordinated effort.
All the misogynist talk we're now hearing from Republican presidential candidates about contraceptives and abortion is calculated to invigorate the Tea Party base going into 2012. If they can spend infinite amounts of cash pumping up the base as they did in 2004 and 2010 they won't need "independents" to win a close election. Bush and Rove showed us that the Republicans can win if they can energize their base and force the contest to come down to one or two states that the Republicans control, like Florida and Ohio. Governors Rick Scott and John Kasich would love to play the roles in 2012 of a Katherine Harris or a Kenneth Blackwell.
And who are these "independent" voters anyway who are supposed to be so "moderate" and knowledgeable? They are among the least informed and politically unaware people in the country. These white baby boomers swing back and forth between the parties based narrowly on the condition of their pocketbooks at the moment they pull the lever. I don't think the culture war registers on them one way or another. It's all about economics. And all we've had at the state and local level for the past three years is austerity and budget cuts followed by more austerity and budget cuts.
I live in a Democratic congressional district in a state with a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature and they have pushed through the most savage budget cuts I've seen in my lifetime, wave after wave of them. After about 4 or 5 years of "budget emergencies" what begins to take shape is a legitimation crisis in seeing the failures of our political leaders (regardless of party) to deal with the worst economic crisis we've suffered since the Great Depression. They have essentially defunded the public sector and embraced the cult of privatization that makes the parties nearly indistinguishable. All "We, the people" get is a denuded public sector. Public institutions that our parents' generation worked so hard to build are being systematically dismantled and it's being done in a "bipartisan" manner as if there is a consensus for it.
Tolstoy in Anna Karenina writes: "There are no conditions of life to which a man cannot get accustomed, especially if he sees them accepted by everyone around him." That process is happening right now across the country. We are more or less passively accepting at a slow simmer grotesque austerity measures. And when we awake from this nightmare we are going to see all around us that our public institutions have been decimated; our public schools, our public parks, our public libraries and universities, and our public health infrastructure will have evaporated into thin air by the actions of failed politicians imposing a failed austerity. All it means is that the quality of life in America will continue to decline. That's a pretty volatile environment to be running for reelection.