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OP-ED | Stuck in the Middle Again

by Susan Bigelow | Aug 24, 2012 1:37pm
(7) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Election 2012, Opinion

You’d think, if you only looked at who was actually winning certain crucial elections, that now is a great time to be a moderate.

The presidential race is between a pragmatic Democrat with centrist instincts, and a moderate Republican with pragmatic instincts. Mitt Romney defeated a host of other candidates who were far more to the right. Polls say moderate Republican Sen. Scott Brown is either even with or ahead of liberal Elizabeth Warren in true-blue Massachusetts. Here in Connecticut’s 5th District, despite a lot of bluster about who was really a Republican and who was really a Democrat, two moderates won their respective primaries. It must be a fine thing, to be in the middle in 2012.

And yet, somehow, we still live in some of the most polarized times in memory. The federal government is paralyzed by partisan Republican brinksmanship, the GOP convention is preparing a draconian platform, and the moderate Romney was so afraid of his carnivorous base that he selected Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin acolyte of Ayn Rand, as his running mate. In Connecticut, moderate Republican Christopher Shays lost the Senate nomination in a tidal wave to Linda McMahon in a vote that was partly a reaction to Shays constantly frustrating more conservative Republicans throughout his long career.

The Democrats aren’t quite as bad, though they still love to tie themselves in knots over who is really a progressive and who isn’t. That moderate Elizabeth Esty, fresh off her primary win, has to fret about the support of progressive activists and organized labor as well as a potential spoiler run by outgoing House Speaker Chris Donovan, a progressive favorite who lost the nomination to Esty following a bribery scandal among his staff. It’s still unclear if Donovan will run on the Working Families Party line, since at the time of this writing he is still apparently on vacation.

The upshot is that it pays to run where the most activist and extreme voters are, and our two big political parties are changing because of it. As Republicans and Democrats internalize the idea that winning an election in today’s climate is more about exciting your own base than reaching into the center, moderates are faced with the same rock-and-a-hard-place choice, over and over. Do you choose the party that spends too much, has terrible relations with business, looks down its nose at religion and can’t seem to legislate its way out of a paper bag, or the party that has hideous rhetoric on women’s rights and race relations, wants to cut needed entitlement programs, favors huge tax breaks for those who need them least, and would rather bomb the world than save it?

That’s why this election feels like such a heartless slog. Most likely voters have made up their minds, but not because they wholeheartedly support their candidate or party. They just want to keep the other party out of power. American politics is now more about blocking the opposition than accomplishing anything constructive, and we’re sick of it. That’s why I have no patience for conservative hand-wringing over Andrew Roraback, or liberal moaning over Elizabeth Esty. It makes little sense when national political groups are trying to paint both Roraback and Esty as dangerous extremists.

There was a great poll done by Suffolk University of unlikely voters, people who didn’t vote and weren’t planning on it, and their attitudes shine a light on a segment of society who politicians, conscious of the need to appeal to their core voters, increasingly don’t represent at all. Many are white and poor, few have college degrees. Less than a third of them said the two major parties did a good job representing all Americans’ political views. Some 53 percent thought third parties, or even fourth or fifth parties, were necessary. Many identified themselves as moderates.

There’s little to inspire these voters to get to the polls, because many don’t feel it makes much of a difference. The old big-tent parties have become far less welcoming, and far less roomy. Politics and government in Connecticut and the country at large should be about real solutions for the people, instead of an endless, insipid contest to prove that one side is good, and the other is bad. However, to do that would require rupturing our political life and culture. Getting rid of the Electoral College, which would allow third parties to really compete, might be one way we could start that happening. The National Popular Vote initiative will pop up again in the 2013 legislative session, and we should support it.

There are good moderate candidates out there, such as Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Andrew Roraback and Elizabeth Esty. But until the political conversation starts being less about scaring voters with the dangers of the other side, and more about compromise and real solutions, then moderate and pragmatist voters will continue to feel lost in a sea of partisanship.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

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(7) Comments

posted by: Matt Zagaja | August 24, 2012  8:22pm

The reason third parties cannot compete is they cannot sell their candidates and ideas. No modification of the electoral college or passing of a national popular vote initiative will fix this. Many third parties do not have access to the sophisticated voter targeting software and techniques used by the two major parties. The donor networks are not in place, and they do not have benches full of experienced candidates. Rome was not built in a day.

As far as getting voters to the polls, I am copying and pasting some thoughts I posted in a thread on Colin McEnroe’s blog (http://courantblogs.com/colin-mcenroe/the-10-million-race-that-produced-23000-winning-votes/#comments) because the issue is the same:


Turnout in November elections has been plummeting as well. So here are a few thoughts:

1. We now have a high amount of noise and not much signal in electioneering communications. Part of it is the campaign operations and part of it is a disengaged electorate. No campaign manager wants to spend $50K on mailers and spend hours dialing you at dinner time but if you can’t be bothered to buy a Hartford Courant subscription or attend local political events that’s the only way you are reachable.

2. Campaign finance reform has shifted the focus of electioneering from parties to the individual candidates. These individual candidate committees exist for a short amount of time and so they have to replicate all the work their predecessors put in (IDing people, finding out their likes, etc.) and getting a message out. After November these committees disappear and the fruits of the labor are not put to any long term use. In other words instead of having people and groups that are looking for long term relationships we now have 19-year old guys looking to close on the first transaction.

3. The focus is also less on persuasion and more on finding your supporters and turning them out.

4. The parties are not investing much into building the next generation. Attend a local town committee meeting and you’ll not see many people that look like me. I doubt many people my age know what a town committee is or why they would go to one.

5. Being involved in politics is not sexy.

posted by: Tessa Marquis | August 26, 2012  11:02am

I enjoy being partisan.

Re town committees: It is desperately difficult to bring younger people in, partially due to their geographic mobility. The most exciting part of an election occurs during the Sept/Oct months, while many people are at college or grad school and scattered across the country. We can’t involve them in municipal elections in their “home” towns.

Thus we haveh the Young Dems and Young Repubs, most of whom work in Hartford for the Legislature and are concentrated in the town committees in that area.

In this state we need to integrate on so many levels.

posted by: thomas hooker | August 26, 2012  8:42pm

Oh Ms. Bigelow.  Did you really refer to Mitt Romney as a “moderate”?  Really?  The guy who chose the extreme-right Paul Ryan for his running mate?  The guy who wants to overturn Roe v Wade?  The guy who wants to turn Medicare into a voucher system?  The guy who wants to turn over regulation of mining to the states?  Who wants to repeal all of President Obama’s health care reforms?  Really?

posted by: RE-Windsor, CT | August 27, 2012  1:20pm

Excellent piece.

I have said many times the problem with the parties is that those remaining in the Republican party and the Democratic party are the stalwart extremists.  The hard right wingers on the R side, and the hard left wingers on the D side.

The middle ground is arguably held by the unaffiliated voter that is not involved.  That means the members of the parties are more extreme than the moderate, and to win a primary election you must poll from the extremists.  This polarizes the parties and turns off the moderate voter.

The voters also do not take the time to listen and process what is said by the politicians of either party.  They live in a sound bite world that if you can’t say it in 20 seconds they will not listen or process.

What is the solution… I can think of several, but none are popular.  Getting more people to vote is not necessarily the solution.

Consider what the intent of democracy was for the founding father’s.

posted by: thomas hooker | August 27, 2012  4:13pm

Ms. Bigelow, what would Romney have to do to be labeled “conservative”?  Seriously.  He’s for gutting the social safety net, for a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion.  But he’s a moderate?  Seriously, what does it take to be a conservative in your view?  Because for most rational people, he’s extremely conservative.

posted by: ctperson13 | August 28, 2012  7:13am

I stopped reading after the second paragraph. Romney—“A moderate Republican with pragmatic instincts?” What? Where do you get your news? Mitt Romney is so far right he’s about to jump over the cliff. And his running mate is even further to the right, if that’s even possible. Romney’s energy plan would mean certain and expedited disaster for the Earth and every creature on it. He would gut all social safety nets, while assuring that even more of the nation’s resources flow ever more quickly up to the sociopathic oligarchy. As a transgender advocate, you should inform yourself re the Romney/Ryan attitude toward women/homosexuals/gay marriage. Romney is a Mormon—take a look at the Mormon attitude toward the role of women in society.Not pretty.Despite what they’re saying during campaigning, both Romney and Ryan have show a proclivity toward denying a woman’s rights to an abortion, no matter the circumstances. Romney is NO moderate!

posted by: Joe Eversole | August 28, 2012  9:10am

Mitt Romney is indeed a moderate, except on social issues. However, the reason he won the primary had more to do with organization, money and the fact that his opponents had far more baggage.  In addition, Esty won, not because she is a moderate, but because her campaign wasn’t under federal investigation.  Andy Roraback won because of name recognition and a hard tack to the right in recent months.  Now, calling Barack Obama a centrist is ludicrous on it’s face.  He is a far left Democrat.  Anyone that has taken 5 minutes to read his writings, or listen to his unscripted statements can come to no other conclusion.  But here is the thing, in Connecticut, being a moderate Democrat can still win you elections, as long as you manage to keep scandal free and get the Union base on your side.  Being a moderate Republican often gets you pilloried, as the few conservative voters left in this State won’t support you, and Democrats who are in the middle won’t bother, since they will have their own candidate.