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Mark Penn

Mark Penn

Posted: October 18, 2010 01:29 PM

Who Will Win the Midterms?

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As we head into the midterms it is increasingly clear that there will be no winners on election night given the massive discontent of the electorate almost across the board. Even if the Republicans have a good night, it will not be an endorsement of the Tea Party any more than 2008 was an endorsement of the progressive left. It will be another cycle in the game of ping pong being played out by an increasingly non-partisan, centrist electorate given too little choice -- or, worse yet, given false choices.

The problem is that the successful strategies of the two wings of the parties, particularly as the parties have been shrinking, have driven both parties closer to the extremes. Think about the math of it -- if the Republican Party is, say, 26% of the country and the most conservative elements of the party are 14%, then 14% can end up governing not just a minority party but the entire country.

At the root of the discontent is the desire to have practical, not ideological, solutions to intractable problems. In most cases, the voters oppose single-sided solutions that entirely reject one party's ideas, and favor instead approaches that combine the best of each platform. No, not soft, watered down approaches, but strong, comprehensive solutions such as we've seen in the past with the balanced budget accord and Welfare reform.

When it comes to the economy, the voters want a return to solid economic growth. If China can grow why can't the United States? So they favored stimulus when we needed it but oppose tax increases, and want to see more markets open to American goods, more investment in innovation. A comprehensive economic strategy in the 21st century has to have more than just tax and spend at its core -- it needs the kinds of investments and opening of markets that promote winning a fair share of the expanding global economic pie.

Of course they believe all Americans should have access to quality affordable healthcare. But voters also think that the government has to be kept out of healthcare decisions and that costs have to be controlled, starting with malpractice.

And as polls show they favor a toughening of the immigration laws, but also believe that we need a fair resolution of the problems of the millions of people already here.

Waiting for 'Superman' is touching a nerve when it comes to educational reform. The electorate believes teachers should be paid well -- but also they think they should be judged in the workplace just like everyone else is -- and want to see us as a country be more open to more radical educational reform.

They want smaller government, but they also want an activist government that is looking out for them and their children when they get in a car, use a bank or eat a hamburger. They want small business (and business in general) to flourish, but not without the regulations and appropriate mandates (like the epa mileage standards) that keep them safe and move the country in the right direction.

And working to protect our environment is not an on/off switch. Voters reject radical solutions that would restrict economic growth and add huge new taxes but they favor tough environmental regulations, incentives to find new forms of energy, and a national commitment to new green industries.

In fact, spinning out the list of things that the voters want that combine the best of what Democrats and Republicans offer is easy - and around election time this list seems to appear on virtually every presidential candidate's website.

But once in office it seems to disappear. The 1994 to 2000 period is the last period of bipartisan action and high voter satisfaction with the system, coming off a low point in the 1994 midterms. It wasn't perfect, but over 20 million jobs were created while tough problems like the budget deficit and welfare were tackled head on.

The Republicans are set to crow on election day -- but the results will really be more of a reflection of dissatisfaction with the administration, and the perception that it has failed to govern as promised, than an endorsement of all their policies. As with 2008, it will be a call for greater balance and the post-election period will afford our country's leaders a time to assess what this electorate is seeking from government. If, after the returns are in, the administration and the Republicans recognize these results as a warning shot to both parties and roll up their sleeves to produce the same kinds of action we saw after 1994, then there will be a winner -- the voters.