The Three-Body Problem And The Axis of Moderation


It’s been interesting over the last few weeks, to try and suss out the turbulent political waves and to begin to see some clarity emerging. I’ll suggest (shockingly) that what we’re seeing reinforces a belief that I’ve had for quite some time – meaning it’s good for me to put it out there to be challenged.

Looking at why Obama seems to be having such a popularity collapse suggests that models of the polity that were bipolar – i.e. D’s and R’s – probably don’t represent reality as models that are tripolar – D’s, R’s, and I’s. And while the I’s may be largely ideologically rooted in one side or the other, their “brand attachment” is weak, meaning that they can be flipped easily or else that they aren’t necessarily going to come out and vote unless they are engaged.

Both GWB and Obama managed to engage a large group of these I’s; in each case for a variety of historical reasons, but also, I’ll suggest because they presented as postpartisan – as essentially independent-friendly candidates.

No Republican is going to seriously chase Henry Waxman’s support, and no Democrat is going to seriously chase Newt Gingrich’s. The folks clustered at the ends of the spectrum are essentially locked in via brand attachment. But there’s a ever-increasing cloud of people in the middle – call it for grins the Althouse – Danziger – KausReynolds axis, who are tippable. And not just tippable once and then stable (in the manner of Southern Democrats facing a McGovern candidacy), but tippable election to election, issue to issue (almost week to week).

Eric Alterman suggests today that Obama won because he appealed to us:

Robert Kuttner, co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect, asks, on The Huffington Post, “Will somebody please explain to me why Barack Obama is still on his bipartisan kick…What do these guys think they are getting by continuing to kiss up to the Republicans?”

I think the answer to Mr. Kuttner’s conundrum can be found in an article, ironically enough, by one Mark Schmitt, who happens to be executive editor of, you guessed it, The American Prospect. Way back in December 2007, when supporters of both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards were pummeling Obama on what they deemed was the wishy-washiness of his bipartisan appeal in the face of so nasty an opponent, Schmitt published an influential (among liberals) argument, “The ‘Theory of Change’ Primary“. In it, Schmitt argued that liberals were “too literal in believing that ‘hope’ and bipartisanship are things that Obama naively believes are present and possible, when in fact they are a tactic, a method of subverting and breaking the unified conservative power structure. Claiming the mantle of bipartisanship and national unity, and defining the problem to be solved (e.g. universal health care) puts one in a position of strength, and Republicans would defect from that position at their own risk.”

Obama invited me to dinner shortly after he became a senator, and I got exactly the same impression. This man is, like FDR, a genuine liberal, but also a serious politician. He is not interested in moral victories or noble defeats. He wants to win. What he’s figured out, however, is that – particularly after two full decades of Bush/Clinton/Bush wars – the American people feel more comfortable with a politician who appears to reach out to the other side, who gives them a chance to play ball. This works both as an electoral strategy and a governing strategy. He gave in a little on the stimulus, but just enough to keep the ball rolling. He could always come back for more, later if necessary.

The change is real:

The slippage among college-educated whites also helps explain Obama’s troubles with independent voters, another more troublesome trend for him. All of the most recent national surveys have placed his approval rating among independents below 50 percent, although his positive ratings with them still generally exceed his negative marks.

The NBC/Wall Street Journal national survey also released this week offers some insight into that decline. It found that just 31 percent of independents now approve of Obama’s handling of health care, while 54 percent disapprove, according to crosstabs from the poll provided by Public Opinion Strategies, one of the pollsters. Asked their view of Obama’s health care plan, just 28 percent of independents said they consider it a good idea, while 43 percent described it as a bad idea, and the rest said they didn’t know.

So the core difference between me and a typical Netroots blogger is that they passionately, deeply, believe that as soon as ‘truly pure’ candidate steps forward, a vast ‘hidden majority’ will appear. (Note that conservative purists and Paulistas believe the same thing). I think that’s a delusion, and that what we have is a multpolar electorate with three major poles; liberals, conservatives, and moderates (who may be moderate because their views can’t be encapsulated in either camp – like mine [pro-gun, pro-environmental regulation etc.] or because their views genuinely stand between the poles of ideology). If they are right, Obama should turn hard left and wait for the support to explode. If I’m right, when he does that, his support will collapse.

I’ll suggest that recent events offer more evidence that my model is right than theirs.

There’s another important issue. Althouse thinks that:

Basically, Obama has a big problem. He got lots of people to trust him, chiefly by doing exactly what Krugman now complains about: speaking in vague generalities. It only works from a distance.

I’ll suggest a corollary: That he took the positions that would have worked (albeit with a lot of sweat, labor, and compromise) and tried to use them as a fig leaf for more traditional power politics. It doesn’t work.

In my work life I caution clients about using community and the explicit promise of empowerment, dialog, and engagement as a fig leaf for traditional marketing. It really, truly, deeply pisses people off. If that’s really what Obama is doing, it’s going to end badly for him and for all of us.

The reality is that the game is still in early innings, and Obama is going to be President for more than three more years. He’s got time to course correct, and to do two critical things:

Understand that the base isn’t big enough to win, and that what’s needed is to both placate the base and reach out to the swing voters. That can be both via substance and process (and we’re not getting much of either just now).

Really get it that promising transparency and engagement and delivering machine politics is an absolute route to early retirement. Be transparent, and be engaged. Obama is smart and eloquent enough to be able to hold his own with audiences that haven’t been packed; his handlers need to trust him a whole lot more. And trust the American people to engage with honesty when treated with respect.

…fixed typo in Mickey Kaus’ name…

14 thoughts on “The Three-Body Problem And The Axis of Moderation”

  1. I think Obama was cursed with the worst political nightmare he could ask for- total Democratic control of Congress. I suspect the people handed Obama this Congress because they liked and believed what he campaigned on (the generalities). But the tail is madly wagging the dog, and Congress is, if not setting the agenda, at least madly twisting it around in Obama’s hand.

    Nobody sent Obama to Washington so he could sign bills written by Pelosi and Reid. But that’s what we’ve gotten. Obama is proving to be that kind of politician that holds to the security of ambiguity like grim death. That isn’t going to work. With a Republican chamber, he would have a foil and somebody to knock a plan together with. Now he can’t raise his hands to his liberal base and say ‘this is the best they would give me’. He has to give them _everything,_ and we quickly see that what they want is nuts.

  2. I suspect that, at some point, folks are going to reconsider whether the President is really all that smart – or whether it really matters.

    “Educationally credentialed”, yes; but “smart” … well, to me, that implies a lot more.

    Approach to Iraq – dumb.

    Approach to Israel – dumb.

    Approach to Palestinians – dumb.

    Strategy on healthcare – which amounts to attacking the integrity of everyone who opposes / has questions about his approach (a lot of whom are, ahem, VOTERS) – dumb.

    There’s a lot more, but you get the idea.

  3. “He apparently doesn’t know how to bridge the chasm from idea to action.”

    The way one learns to bridge that chasm is _experience_. There’s really no mystery here. It was the #1 critique of him in the campaign.

    People decided they wanted the new guy instead of the experienced man — Sen. McCain — or the experienced woman — Sen. Clinton. So, now you’ve got him. He doesn’t have the faintest idea even how Congress works, because he wasn’t there long enough to learn. He certainly wasn’t there long enough to learn how anything else works. A Senator with a dozen years under his belt probably knows how to create and move legislation, and has also learned quite a bit about the business of his committee.

    People made this choice freely. They voted for inexperience, and they’ve gotten it. By the end of his first term, he’ll have some experience. A good bit of it is apt to be gotten the hard way — because when you jump in the deep end not knowing how to swim, there is no other way to learn.

  4. But the tail is madly wagging the dog, and Congress is, if not setting the agenda, at least madly twisting it around in Obama’s hand.

    I predicted the same in the comments here during the election. Obama’s SOP has been to stand around looking pretty while others did the work. He has done well in life with that approach and there was no reason to think he would change. Indeed, most of what Obama has done, his ignorance and inability to lead or legislate, were all clearly visible in his past record. The truly amazing thing about his election was how many intelligent folks were able to overlook that record and project their own competence and hopes onto the man. It was all very disturbing.

  5. Nobody sent Obama to Washington so he could sign bills written by Pelosi and Reid. But that’s what we’ve gotten.

    You nailed it with that. It’s a perfect description of the situation and one of the most astute observations I’ve read in awhile.

    Of course, some people did vote for him on that basis, but not near enough to elect him president of the United States. The moderates, independents, GOP defectors and other newly interested and energized voters he brought to the polls certainly didn’t elect him with the expectation that he’d defer to the left wing of the Democratic party in writing legislation. They expected him to be the pragmatic, post-partisan, moderate (or some semblance thereof) that he pretended to be on the campaign trail. Perhaps he is that, to some extent, but when he bails on doing the hard work of pushing for what the people voted for and instead turns over a blank slate to Pelosi (especially), then he shouldn’t be surprised that it doesn’t go over well.

  6. AL,

    Consider how the Democrats have, with their so-called health reforms, made the same mistake of butting in on intensely private family end-of-life decisions that extremist GOP Social Conservatives and Right-to-Lifers made concerning Terri Schiavo.

    The pandering of GOP elected officials to those GOP extremists over Terri Schiavo seems to have been when the GOP nationally started tubing during the Bush administration as its GOP leaning independents as well as its moderate and libertarian wings started backing away from the party.

    The same thing is happening now with Democratic leaning independents, as well as the moderates, disabled and elderly Democrats (and their relatives!) backing away from their party over its own attempt to control private family matters, which seems to be the new third rail of American politics.

    Our national political parties intervene in private family matters, notably but not limited to, end-of-life decisions, at their peril.

  7. Obama said early in his campaign (I’m paraphrasing) that he is an empty canvass onto which people project their own image of who they want him to be. While this worked brilliantly for an unknown candidate that the press refused to question, it quickly destroys the fragile trust that votors had.

    So those who were swayed by “Hope and Change” are stunned that he was not what they projected him to be. Those voters that were first-time voters may throw up their hands in disgust and not vote next time. Those that are active voters but independent will feel betrayed. The peace-nics feel like a used condom and will send their support elsewhere.

    The self-proclaimed empty canvass is quickly turning into the empty suit.

  8. I think your three poles should actually be three axes. There is a libertarian-authoritarian axis, a conservative-progressive axis ans a egalitarian-justice axis. Obama won because he persuaded people that he was near the center on these axes and if slightly off was off in the direction they wanted. He campaigned as a balancer who would use power with respect for liberty. He governs as a power user. He campaigned as a progressive who respected tradition and who would reform, not revolutionize. He governs as a transformative figure who will remake the whole system. He campaigned as a devotee of equality who understood that justice sometimes produces unequal results. He governs as one who will impose equality and call it justice.

    Obama is losing among moderates because he is immoderate.

  9. bq. Why did it work so well for FDR, then? LBJ was also someone who spoke in generalities and collapsed them when it was to his advantage

    It’s not clear to me that it did work for LBJ. He won his first election on JFK after glow and his full term went so badly he didn’t even bother trying for a second.

    FDR was far more intelligent, educate, politically astute, and flexible than Obama is. FDR also was able to engage in political actions that would likely end in impeachment if tried today (e.g., Court Packing), because of the tenor of the times. People in FDR’s day couldn’t look back and see how similar policies worked out, but Obama faces an American Street that can and does.

  10. Some of us believe the reason Obama won was the press refusing to vet him. Now, one of the problems he’s having is the press refuses to vet his Health Care Program.

    Let’s face it, ABC completely blew it with their 2-1/2 hour infomercial. It seems that all of this protesting and town halls started right after that. Makes y ou wonder, doesn’t it?

  11. Trent, it’s actually not that unusual for the government to interfere in a man’s private decision to end the life of the woman he’s married to so he can marry the woman he’s sleeping with.

  12. This is my problem with the analysis:

    “What he’s figured out, however, is that – particularly after two full decades of Bush/Clinton/Bush wars – the American people feel more comfortable with a politician who appears to reach out to the other side, who gives them a chance to play ball.”

    Obama was the candidate that talked about reaching out to the other side, and giving them a chance to play ball, but never did. McCain (and Palin, for that matter) were the candidates who actually did so during their careers.

    The question I still have for all the moderate and independent voters who support(ed) Obama is, exactly what evidence is there that he would actually behave in a bipartisan manner, as opposed to merely speaking the language? What makes you think that his governance so far is a mistake or aberration, as opposed to his plan all along?

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