It was October 23rd, 2010, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell famously said in an interview with the National Journal that he wanted Barack Obama to be a “one-term president.”
The irony of that quote is that no one ever talks about the question that followed.
National Journal: “Does that mean endless, or at least frequent confrontation with the president?”
McConnell: “If President Obama does a Clintonian backflip, if he’s willing to meet us halfway on some of the biggest issues, it’s not inappropriate for us to do business with him.”
The national takeaway was to ignore that context and basically brand the GOP as a party unwilling to compromise, which, ironically, may not have been wrong. Republicans were energized by McConnell’s staunch language. Democrats were invigorated by the perceived threat.
Everyone else just sort of rolled their eyes, thinking that this was business as usual in a political structure that more or less ignored independents, moderates, and folks who just wanted something to get done in D.C.
It was a strange time to be a neutral, and it still is.
These days, you’re a Donald Trump supporter or you’re not. Anything in the middle and you’re part of the problem, demonized by the left as “normalizing” an uncouth president or slagged by the right as being a soft snowflake.
People, including our politicians, are so entrenched, it’s hard to tell if the middle even exists anymore.
You have to start by defining what it means to be a moderate, what it means to be an independent, and what our president is.
“Donald Trump is not a traditional conservative,” says Rich Zeoli, afternoon host on Talk Radio 1210 WPHT. “On the right, you have conservatives and moderates within the Republican party. Then you have progressive Republicans. Then, on the left, you have Democrats who I think are committed to stopping Trump, but you also have a progressive wing of the party, the Bernie Sanders wing. And then you have a more traditional Democrat wing, which I would say is the Hillary Clinton wing.”
But do any of these groups fit the “moderate” descriptor?
Independents, Zeoli suggests, “don’t have a home” right now. Some have some views that are moderate, some that are liberal, and some have views that are conservative.
Maybe you’re a middle-aged, pro-life white woman from Bucks County who also happens to be in a teacher’s union. You could be a black Philadelphia police officer who voted for Obama in 2008 but went for Trump last year.
How many of these people are out there?
Not a lot, according to Temple University Political Science professor Kevin Arceneaux.
“The thing is that there are not that many independents — perhaps 10 percent or so of the electorate,” Arceneaux explains. “Independents are less likely to vote than partisans, so when you get down to it, in an election they make up a fairly small slice of the pie. Of course, in a close election they could be the difference.”
In 2016, we had one of these close elections, at least in Pennsylvania. Trump won here by a 0.7 percent margin, beating Clinton by 44,292 votes.
Clinton defeated Trump in the Philly suburbs, but the gap was a bit smaller than Obama’s win over Mitt Romney four years ago.
Montgomery County was an easy victory, 59 to 37 percent. Clinton won by a similar margin in Delaware county.
But Bucks County was a close fight, going blue by just 0.6 percent. And while Clinton flipped Chester County, she lost ground in Scranton and Harrisburg, areas where Obama cruised.
Even in deep blue Philadelphia, where most political leaders came out hard against him, Trump won three wards.
“I believe what we saw happen was that President Trump’s populist message struck a chord with working class whites, many of whom were not consistent voters in previous elections,” Arceneaux adds. “These voters were not enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton for a variety of reasons, so the Clinton campaign attempted to persuade these voters by pointing out Trump’s flaws as a candidate, while trying to turn out their base.
“That strategy didn’t seem to work for the Clinton campaign as turnout was lower among the Democratic base in Pennsylvania and energized Trump supporters who came out to vote.”
While it’s true that the two-party system wasn’t doing much for independents, Trump’s message resonated with another group — people who were fed up with Washington in general.
“The two-party system forces you to pick a side. When you do that, it has consequences,” Zeoli said. “Trump’s message was much more populist than it was conservative or Republican and they identified with that.
“That’s a problem because he doesn’t have a populist coalition in Congress. He has Republicans and Democrats. There’s no populist party. The question is whether he can turn that populist position into a legislative reality when you’re dealing with people who are entrenched in the two-party system.”
Not much is a “legislative reality” these days, even before a non-politician won the White House.
We often hear about reaching “across the aisle,” that ephemeral concept of bipartisan cooperation. Democrats and Republicans used to compromise on issues where common ground existed. In 2017, joining forces is almost derided or mocked as being spineless and weak. It signals a forfeiture of values and shows that you’re giving up or giving in.
Zeoli uses the recent healthcare vote to illustrate that concept, referencing Tom MacArthur, the South Jersey Congressman who headed the Tuesday Group, a moderate branch of Republicans that is generally willing to work with Democrats.
“When MacArthur worked with the Freedom Caucus to come up with an amendment for the healthcare bill, then proceeded to get it passed through the House, the moderates were so angry with him that he resigned as chairman of the Tuesday Group,” Zeoli said. “He doesn’t want to be a part of it. They were so angry at him for working with the conservatives to advance that agenda.”
“This idea of reaching across the aisle is so much more complicated now because you have a Republican party that is not ideologically consistent. Look at our area; Pat Meehan and Ryan Costello and Charlie Dent and some of these other moderates, they don’t cooperate with the conservative wing of the party and there’s a real clash there.”
— Patrick Meehan (@RepMeehan) June 1, 2017
Arceneaux echoes those sentiments regarding the fractured nature of the GOP, which he says appears more like two parties in one.
“You have an establishment that is interested in crafting conservative policies, Paul Ryan for example, and they would, in years past, happily work with members in Democratic areas to shape policies in ways that don’t harm their re-election chances,” he said. ” The Freedom Caucus has a particular ideological vision and does not want to compromise or, as we saw with their repeated attempts to take down John Boehner, play by the norms of the established order.”
That’s a real problem for moderates. When the “left” and “right” are having their own identity crises, it muddles the middle. The political spectrum is foggy. There can be no appeal to the independent voter until each party finds their own rapprochement.
It makes things worse that partisanship has brought on era of politics where the two sides are so deeply divided on issues that any semblance of middle ground is crumbling.
So when it comes to voting, most independents usually wind up choosing the “lesser of two evils” and cast a ballot for a Democrat or Republican.
But if you don’t like A or B, is option C feasible? Can that fed-up and disinterested portion of middle-America rally behind a national third (or fourth) party?
Not really, judging by the fringe performances of the Libertarian and Green parties last November.
Gary Johnson took in 142,653 Pennsylvania votes, good for just 2.4 percent of the state. Jill Stein had less than 50,000 votes for a 0.8 percent total.
Johnson earned more than 5 percent of the vote in only 10 states, nine of which are in the western half of the country, including New Mexico, the state he once governed. He was a non-factor in the Northeast and Bible Belt. Stein did okay on the coasts but generally had trouble scraping 2 percent.
Arceneaux says the structure of the American electoral system makes a national third party a “nonstarter” idea.
“The problem with creating a third party that appeals only to independents is that this is not a broad enough coalition to be nationally competitive,” he said. “A two-party system creates strong incentives for parties to cobble together a coalition of groups in society based on geography, identities, and single-issue voters, et cetera.”
“I don’t think it will ever be relevant because the two-party system is just too embedded in every level of government, from the local level, to town council, the county level, and state level,” Zeoli adds. “Unfortunately, the two-party system is probably never going to change in our lifetime. But I think when you pick a side, which is what voters have to do if they want to be relevant, then they wind up having to say, ‘okay, which positions can I sacrifice?'”
That’s basically what the majority Republican Congress is grappling with right now. They “won” the election, but their candidate isn’t really a Republican. Democrats lost blue collar working types along the way. Neither party really got its preferred outcome, and 40 percent of the country didn’t even vote for a variety of reasons, be it general apathy or disinterest in both candidates.
It would make a lot of sense for both sides to take a long, hard look at their platforms ahead of the 2018 midterms.
“The Democratic party is going to have to decide if it wants to be, as (Philadelphia union leader) Johnny Doc described it, a left-coast, liberal, social-progressive party, or if it’s going to return to its roots as the party of the blue collar working man,” Zeoli suggests. “If the Democrat party is extreme in its social justice positions, it’s not going to ever win back those blue collar Union voters that went to Donald Trump.”
“The Democratic Party is so focused on climate change and those guys interpret that as them losing their jobs or resulting in their industry being shut down,” he continued. “You’re finding right now that if you’re a blue collar, pro life Democrat, that you’re not exactly welcome in the Democratic Party right now. They’ve got to sort that out themselves or they’re going to wind up being the minority party for a few more years.”
Arceneaux believes that Trump’s win has caused Democrats to do some soul searching.
“I suspect that going into the midterms, if Trump is still unpopular, the Democrats will basically kick the can down the road and just run an anti-Trump campaign,” he said. “But, by 2020, they’ll need to do more than that.”