Wednesday, March 7, 2012

America's Political Dichotomy

America's most salient political dichotomy isn't Democratic vs. Republican, liberal vs. conservative, or Tea Partier vs. Occupier. It's that most Americans talk conservative but act liberal. They don't like Big Government. But don't mess with their Social Security and Medicare benefits. They see themselves as sturdy, self-sufficient individuals. But, when things go badly, they turn to unemployment comp, food stamps, and COBRA and HIPAA rights to health insurance. They don't like regulations limiting their investment options. But they love federal deposit insurance. And when the stock market plummets, they expect the government to do something.

This dichotomy explains much of the results of the Republican primaries. Many Republicans love the conservative talk coming from Santorum, Gingrich and Paul. Americans are dreamers (other countries don't dedicate themselves to the pursuit of happiness). And the idealistic talk of Santorum, Gingrich and Paul is appealing to many. But larger numbers of Republicans understand that the pragmatic, nuanced approach taken by Romney paves the way to the political middle, where general elections are won. Major right wing government shrinkers won't beat Barack Obama, who angles for the political middle by diligently working the angles of the dichotomy: instigate major reform of health insurance, but take out Osama bin Laden; block the Keystone Pipeline, but talk tough to Iran; target the 1%, but keep open the prison for terrorists at Guantanamo Bay.

Forty-five years ago, the Republican Party understood this dichotomy very well. Richard Nixon, a candidate with a lot less charisma than Mitt Romney (imagine that), beat cheerful Hubert Humphrey by talking tough about crime, the North Vietnamese, the Soviets, and the Chinese, while treading lightly on the benefits government provided to the citizenry. Nixon's 1968 victory initiated a 24-year period of Republican domination of the White House. It wasn't until 1992, when Bill Clinton triangulated the traditional Democratic platform in a major shift toward the middle, that the Democrats again became competitive for the White House.

Now, Republicans have become more and more entangled in the conservative talk part of the dichotomy, and less observant of the need to make voters feel comfortable with them. The dichotomy could easily continue to bifurcate Republican primary results all the way to the Republican Convention. If so, Obama's chances for re-election will increase all the more.

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