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Finding The Cure For Pendulum Politics

Nov 13, 2011
Originally published on November 13, 2011 6:15 pm

It should have been a quiet Election Day this year, but two states drew national attention at the polls.

The proposed personhood amendment in Mississippi that would have effectively outlawed abortion was struck down. In Ohio, voters rejected a measure that would have restricted the rights of unions.

The outcomes suggest the electorate isn't completely in line with a party claiming an ideological mandate.

John Boccieri, a pilot and former congressman, knows about the quickly changing atmosphere of Washington. In 2008, he became the first Democratic congressman since 1950 of Ohio's 16th District, a moderate-to-swing district in northwest Ohio.

His district didn't vote for Barack Obama, and he tells Jacki Lyden, guest host of weekends on All Things Considered, that as soon as he got to Capitol Hill, he felt the political headwinds pick up.

"Almost immediately when the president had taken office, there seemed to be some sort of organized effort to try and build as many roadblocks as they could in front of moving any agenda of the president forward," Boccieri says.

Although Boccieri might not have filled his term with his personal political projects, he did support Obama's health care and energy legislation. Those became polarizing issues, and Boccieri found himself become a one-termer in 2010.

"I think that people from all parties, all corners, and all spectrums of Ohio believe that government is not working for them," he says. "And what they see in Washington, they see trench warfare, they see Democrats and Republicans digging in, not working together to solve our country's problems."

The Pendulum Swings

One year later, it's the Republicans getting burned after making big pushes for their agendas. But the results from Ohio shed some light on the meaning of a political victory. Although it was impressive Democrats were able to mobilize their base with a lot of help and money from unions, during an off-year election, it doesn't mean they can rest easy. Voters in the state also approved a proposal to prohibit people from being required to buy health insurance as part of the national health care overhaul.

"The fact that voters not only turned over the collective-bargaining reform, but also sent a message about individual mandate, means that simply trying to project a partisan or ideological read misses the larger story," says John Avlon, a senior political writer at Newsweek and The Daily Beast.

Avlon says that increased participation during a non-presidential election year is a good thing. But the idea of mandates from the voting booth might be past its prime.

"The idea of ... one party declaring an ideological mandate after they win a wave election is, at this point, totally discredited," he tells Lyden. "It is a willful misread of an election result."

It happened in 2006, when Democrats swept back to power in the House, Avlon says, and then the opposite happened in 2010 when Republicans came back and took away one-party rule in Washington. He says the same thing is happening in 2011.

After a big win, that misreading of the election results, Avlon says, is when a party's most ideological activists issue the party mandate. That, he says, is what immediately begins the pendulum swinging the other direction.

"We are in a cycle of overreach and backlash in our politics," he says.

Morris Fiorina, a professor of political science and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, agrees.

Democratic and Republican candidates for president build their base from the left and right, respectively, Fiorina says. But in order to win, they have to get the center. But that all changes once a candidate takes office.

"In the case of Obama administration ... the pressures (from the left) were to act on things like cap and trade, stop global warming [and] health care," Fiorina says. "But those were not the priorities of the country. The priorities ... were jobs and the economy."

This causes an administration to get out of touch with the bulk of the population, Fiorina says. The overreach is just that: acting in a way that causes an administration to lose the marginal members of their electoral coalition, he says.

The People's Mandate

Avlon says that the center has been sending a consistent message: It doesn't like it when one party has unified control over Washington and it wants some form of fiscal responsibility.

"What's interesting about this particular time in American politics is that, in the past, divided government has not meant dysfunctional government," Avlon says. "That is a key difference."

That "dysfunctional" government is what perpetuates the swing of the pendulum and one of the reasons it is moving so quickly, he says.

So Americans' preference for government from the center might be what's pushing back on government from the extremes.

Fiorina says you'd have to go back to the late 19th century to find comparable volatility and instability in Congress. A finger can be pointed to the leadership in both parties, he says, as to why this is happening now.

"Parties like to think to think if they won, they have a mandate. The American people don't have (ideological) mandates," Fiorina says. "The mandate is to solve problems and to move the country forward. If you don't do it to the satisfaction of the electorate, they turn you out."

Instead of paying attention to the seemingly large swings from party to party, perhaps politicians should look a little more closely at the results. What happened in Ohio and Mississippi, Avlon says, is happening in the minds of the voter and their sense of limits in America, a good lesson for next Election Day.

"There's also a heartening sense ... of discernment that comes with swing voters who are decidedly saying that they are not going to walk in lockstep blindly with one party or one ideology," he says.

That, he says, is a lesson beneath this election as we look toward 2012.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

From NPR News, it's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden, sitting in for Guy Raz.

The political weather has been decidedly variable this season. The results from two states in an off-year election caused a national stir.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The eyes of the nation focuses on Ohio tonight.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Voters overwhelmingly rejected Issue 2 not by a small margin.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: ...across the country and it's obviously a big boost for unions.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: ...striking down a law, limiting collective bargaining.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: All eyes were on Mississippi last night with several key...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: …Mississippi voters overwhelmingly voted no.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Here are the results…

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: You should never underestimate Mississippi. You should never underestimate us.

LYDEN: No one wants to underestimate Mississippians, but that might be easier than predicting how they'll vote. Political predictions are more confounding than ever. Take Mississippi's personhood amendment, which would have effectively outlawed abortion, which many thought the conservative Mississippi electorate would approve. Instead, it was defeated, a whomping 58 percent to 42 percent.

Another closely watched election was the referendum in Ohio where 60 percent of the voters struck down a law called Issue 2, a law enacted by Governor John Kasich that would have curbed the rights of unions.

The outcomes were interpreted as a victory for the Democrats, a signal that the country desires a more progressive track. So what happened to the 12-month old Republican mandate?

Like climate change, drastic shifts in the election cycle are getting more common. Are parties really getting sudden swells in support, or is something else at play? Are we punishing the politics of overreach? That's our cover story: the political pendulum and why the nation's political mood seems to swing faster and faster.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: John Boccieri, a pilot and former congressman, knows about the quickly changing atmosphere of Washington.

JOHN BOCCIERI: Well, as an aviator, C-130 pilot, taking off into strong headwinds is a good thing. But in politics, when you're facing strong headwinds, it is not so good.

LYDEN: And as soon as he got to Capitol Hill to get to work, he felt those headwinds pick up. Back in 2008, Boccieri became the first Democratic congressman from Ohio's 16th District since 1950. It's a moderate swing district in northeast Ohio. But his district had not voted in President Barack Obama.

BOCCIERI: Almost immediately when the president had taken office, there seemed to be some sort of organized effort to try and give as many roadblocks as they could to moving any agenda of the president forward.

LYDEN: Even though Boccieri might not have jam packed his term with his personal political projects, he did support legislation endorsed by President Obama.

BOCCIERI: We dove right into the issues of the day. There were some big contemporary issues that the president wanted to tackle: health care, energy and the like.

LYDEN: But health care and energy became polarizing issues. And while Boccieri thought of himself as a moderate because he was attached to these measures, he also found himself become a one-termer come 2010.

BOCCIERI: There's an old saying that goes, you know what happens to those folks who stake themselves out in the middle of the road - they get run over.

LYDEN: So it didn't turn out the way he'd hoped.

BOCCIERI: Well, I think people from all parties, all spectrums and all corners of Ohio believe that government is not working for them. And what they see on display in Washington, they see trench warfare, Democrats and Republicans digging in, not working together to try to solve our country's problems.

LYDEN: Now, it's one year later, and it's the Republicans getting burned after making big pushes for their agendas to get through. But the results from Ohio shed some light on the meaning of a political victory. And although it was impressive that Democrats were able to mobilize their base with a lot of help and money from unions, during an off-year election in Ohio, it doesn't mean that Democrats can rest easy.

JOHN AVLON: The fact that voters not only overturned the collective bargaining reform but also sent a message about individual mandate means that, you know, simply trying to project a partisan or ideological read misses the larger story.

LYDEN: John Avlon is a senior political writer at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He notes that increased participation during a non-presidential election year is, of course, a good thing. It helps move democracy along. But the idea of mandates from the voting booth might be passe.

AVLON: The idea of an ideological mandate, one party declaring an ideological mandate after they win a wave election is, at this point, totally discredited. It is a willful misread of an election result. Look at what's happened in the nation in the last several wave elections. 2006, Democrats sweep back to power in the House of Representatives, overturning Republican Party one-party rule over Washington winning independence by around 17 points. The exact opposite occurs in 2010.

Midterm election, Republicans sweep back and take one-party rule away from Democrats in Washington. In 2011, we're seeing the same thing. In both cases, after a big win, the party's most ideological activist components willfully misread the results of the election, not as a repudiation of the other party's ideological excesses, but as an endorsement of their own. And therefore, the pendulum started swinging immediately in the other direction. We are in a cycle of overreach and backlash in our politics.

LYDEN: And a senior fellow at the more conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University couldn't agree more.

MORRIS FIORINA: Democratic administration is going to build its electoral coalition from the left, Republicans from the right. But you have to get the center to win. It doesn't even matter how big the center is, but you have to get enough of the center to win, but it's the center's actually quite large. But then once in office, the pressures are to - in the case of the Obama administration, for example, the pressures were to act on things like cap and trade, to stop global warming and health care. But those were not the priorities of the country.

The priorities of the country, when you looked at the public opinion data, were jobs and the economy. And so, essentially, the administration gets out of touch with the bulk of the population, many of whom elected them. And it happens to Democrats. It happens to Republicans. So it's simply a case of overreach is acting in a way that causes you to lose the marginal members of your electoral coalition.

LYDEN: If it's the center voting yes or no on overreaching policy, then what's the job they want done? Again, John Avlon.

AVLON: I'd argue they're sending a consistent message. First of all, they don't like it when one party has unified control over Washington because they believe, rationally, that it leads to ideological excess and legislative overreach. They want to see some degree of fiscal responsibility without having an agenda hijacked by the most activist swing of that party.

What's interesting about this particular time in American politics is that in the past, divided government has not meant dysfunctional government. You're not seeing divided government. You're seeing dysfunctional government. That is a key difference. So that perpetuates the swing of the pendulum. That is one of the reasons it's moving so quickly.

And you see - I mean, look at the fact that in Ohio, for a ballot initiative, that you saw over $40 million spent. $40 million. I mean, Sir Tip O'Neill's old axiom that all politics is local has been turned on its head.

LYDEN: So if Americans basically like government from the center, that may be what's pushing back on government from the extremes. It's been so long since the national electorate has been this volatile that you'd have to look back a very long time to find a historical precedent. Morris Fiorina of Stanford.

FIORINA: I tell people you'd have to go back to the late 19th century to find comparable conditions. From the end of Reconstruction to the McKinley victory in 1896, we had a great deal of instability like this where both parties won the presidency, Republicans generally won the Senate, Democrats generally won the House, lots of divided government that, in fact, we went through the whole 20th century without seeing the kind of electoral instability - or not electoral instability, because the electorate looks basically the same. It's not the electorate that's moving. It's the parties that are moving and the candidates that are moving. And so we actually have not had this kind of instability in about 120 years.

LYDEN: And asked him why now, Fiorina, too, believes a finger can be pointed at the leadership in both parties.

FIORINA: Parties like to think that if they won, they have a mandate. The American people don't give mandates. If you have a - once in a while, such as in 2008, the mandate is simply, for God's sake, do something different from what those people were doing. But they don't give liberal or conservative mandates. They say, OK, we'll hire you on probation. Let's see how you do.

And the parties don't like to think that. The conservatives and liberals alike both like to think they have a mandate. They really do. The mandate is to solve problems and move the country forward. If you don't do it to the satisfaction of the electorate, they turn you out.

LYDEN: Instead of paying attention to the seemingly large swings from party to party, perhaps politicians should look a little more closely at the results. What happened in Ohio and Mississippi, John Avlon notes, actually is happening in the minds of the voters and their sense of the limits in America, a good lesson for next Election Day.

AVLON: There's also a heartening sense, not just increased participation, but a sense of discernment that comes with swing voters who are decidedly saying that they are not going to walk in lockstep blindly with one party or ideology. So I think there's a heartening lesson beneath this election as we look towards 2012.

LYDEN: And this one-term Ohio congressman, John Boccieri, he's watching from the sidelines for now, not that he's unhappy.

BOCCIERI: I'm flying C-130s again, and I had to get brought up to speed and had a whole level of training that I had to accomplish. So I've been doing that, and changing lots of diapers.

LYDEN: But things are changing so fast, he might run for Congress again. He got a taste for it in 2008.

BOCCIERI: Well, we enacted the president's stimulus package and we brought the country back from a near Great Depression. We were able to at least pass out of the House of Representatives a national energy policy that moved away from our dependence on foreign oil and created sustainable green energy jobs. We were able to reform our health care system, reformed our banking system. So I think when folks look back on the 111th Congress, they'll see that we were able to accomplish quite a bit.

LYDEN: Do you feel proud?

BOCCIERI: I do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BOCCIERI: I don't have any regrets, and I certainly wouldn't change anything that I've accomplished or done in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.