The Washington political game is like a magic show. It's filled with smoke and mirrors which create the perception that one thing is happening, when something else altogether is going on.
At a magic show, it looks like a lady is being cut in half, when she is actually stuffed into part of a box. Or that someone is levitating above a table, when there are wires holding them in place. Partisan Washington has a special set of illusions that are all its own.
These days the national political scene is buzzing about independent voters. They supported Barack Obama in 2008, putting the Democrats in power, but then they voted for Republicans in key statewide elections in 2009 and 2010. The establishment says "independents are on the move!" -- first to the Democrats, then to the Republicans. And of course, each party claims independents as their true supporters, whenever they swing in their direction. But if you listen closely to this kind of talk you'll realize it's hokus-pokus.
What's really going on is Democrats and Republicans are using independents to produce the illusion that the parties are being responsive to the American people. Here's how the trick works. When Democratic and Republican candidates run for office, they say to the voters, "Send me to Washington and I'll represent you, the people." But when they get elected and go to Washington, they don't represent the people. They represent their party. How do the parties then maintain the illusion they are putting politics aside and doing what's best for the country? They pull the independents out of their hat and say "Oh look! Independents voted for us, so that means we're not partisan, we're for the people!"
If you look at the election results, it appears as if independents are moving all over the place. But they really aren't. They may pull different levers or punch different voting cards, but the independents' message remains the same no matter who they vote for. Their message is "Something must be done about this partisan paralysis."
Obama was elected president by independents to be an independent. But as president, his hands are almost completely tied. He can use the Democratic majority to pass bills, but that allows the Republicans to mock him for a lack of consensus. Or, he can make bipartisan appeals to the Republican minority, while Democrats criticize him for his compromises.
Either way, playing this partisan game has alienated some independents from the president, though not as much as it has made Americans overall angry at the parties and at Congress. Right now, 75% of Americans disapprove of the way Congress is doing its job and 81% think it doesn't deserve re-election. Meanwhile, even though there is disappointment with Obama, polls show nearly 60% of Americans feel the president puts the American people ahead of the special interests.
The Obama team believes that they can recover from their losses and that independents will come along. And it is tempting to believe that. After all, Martha Coakley was no Barack Obama. But will he win back independent support? Not if Obama remains stuck inside a partisan box, allowing himself to be sliced and diced by one party that wants to own him and the other party that wants to destroy him.
Independents backed Obama - with passion - in 2008 because he wanted to find a way out of the partisan paralysis. But he hasn't, and it might be because he simply can't. The partisan structure of Congress and of the party system overall won't allow it. That's why the independent movement is pressing for structural political reforms to shake up partisan control and create new non-partisan possibilities.
For Obama to regain independent support, he will have to perform some real magic, not just pull a rabbit out of a hat. He'll have to find a way to unlock the secret compartment of partisanship and expose the smoke and mirrors which protect the parties that put their special interests ahead of the American people.
Jackie Salit is President of IndependentVoting.org, a national association of independent voters. She recently completed work on the Independence Party's campaign for Mike Bloomberg in which he became the first independent mayor of New York City.