There is no doubt at all that there are demographic groups that can be accurately categorized as base voting blocs (of both parties) and as swing voting blocs, and politicians must appeal to both to win elections. The key is to position yourself in a way that genuinely does appeal to both -- that both fires up your side and resonates with those in the middle. The great fallacy for Democrats is in thinking those two kinds of voters are so far apart on the most important issues in determining their voting. This debate keeps raging in Democratic circles, and I expect it will continue to for the foreseeable future.
Historically, swing voters tend to be, as Lee Atwater and most Republican strategists for the last 50 years have understood, economically populist. That is especially true in tough economic times, when more people are hurting and angry. Swing voters intensely dislike the idea of cutting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. They don't like Wall Street bankers at all. They hate outsourcing jobs and are not fans of trade deals. They support taxing people making over $250,000 a year. They like the idea of firefighters and cops and nurses being able to unionize. Now, there's no doubt: they are swing voters for a reason -- they don't like "big government" in general, they aren't crazy about their own taxes going up, they are worried about government deficits. But here's the deal: if the goal is to have a message and platform that appeals to both base and swing voters, you can do no better than populist economics. And here's the other key thing: it is hard to unite them any other way. D.C. conventional wisdom centrism sure doesn't do it.
The reason Democrats got beaten so badly in 2010 is that they screwed up their politics with both swing voters, who turned on them with a vengeance, and base voters, who didn't turn out in very strong numbers. (People arguing that it was one or the other need to get over it: Democrats blew it with both sides of the equation.) Base voters -- African-Americans, Hispanics, young people, unmarried women -- didn't feel like Democrats were fighting hard enough for them in very hard economic times, and swing voters felt like Democrats had become, in E.J. Dionne's painfully on-target phrase, "Wall Street liberals": in favor of big government and helping the big banks. The big question heading into 2012, with a still-weak economy and the public still in a growly mood, is whether Obama be able to unite the coalition that elected him in 2008 election.
The best news for Democrats is the Ryan budget, which if messaged correctly, is the best unifier the Democratic base and swing voters have had since the Social Security privatization debacle for Bush in 2005. But it isn't just the big picture long-term fight over the Ryan budget where the Obama team is making tangible and important gestures to progressives. In spite of Obama's strong desire to avoid a fight over the short term continuing resolution on this year's budget; he held out strong on funding for the EPA, Planned Parenthood, and education funding, all things of crucial importance to major forces in progressive politics. Finally getting the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell done, and dropping the defense of DOMA, were huge pluses for the LGBT community. And earlier this week, Obama met with immigration reform advocates to jump start a big new push on that issue, one that I have been told on good authority will be getting a lot of administration resources to pursue.
The other great news for the Obama team has been a real change in political attitude and strategy toward the base in general, and progressive leaders in particular. In spite of hewing to a unabashedly centrist policy and messaging strategy (which as the populist progressive I am I clearly haven't always agreed with), it is ironically in Former Corporate Executive Bill Daley's White House that a new era of détente and affirmative outreach to progressives has occurred. Hopefully I'm not jinxing anything by saying it, but we haven't had a "professional left" (as Gibbs so mockingly called progressive leaders) bashing incident, for which the Rahm-led White House was famous, in several months. And a wide variety of progressive opinion leaders (and not just D.C. insiders) have been invited in, called on a regular basis, invited to outreach meetings of the kind people had not been invited to before. New Office of Public Engagement head Jon Carson deserves a lot of the credit for this, but it hasn't only been him. Bill Daley, for example, has picked up the phone to call multiple people in progressive politics, and has done things like an extended one-on-one sit-down with Howard Dean. It is good to see this contrast with the Rahm White House.
I still have very big concerns about the strategy the Obama team is pursuing, both on economics and on politics. I think their economic policy remains flawed by an adherence to the economic philosophy of Bob Rubin, Larry Summers, and Tim Geithner, which does too little in terms of fighting for jobs and hard-pressed, middle-class homeowners, and I fear that as a result our economy is going to look a lot more like Japan's and a lot less like the American economy going into the 1996 election. Aspects of their foreign policy are a mess. And I don't think their "winning the future" frame is the kind of message that will unify base and swing voters in the way I am advocating for. But the new approach to progressives opens the door to making progress on these issues, and the fight over the Ryan budget unifies us and gives us a huge opportunity for messaging going forward. It sure does make for an interesting next year and a half.