Politics

A Red-Blue Divide? Hardly.

The increasingly purple hue of Election '08

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In his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, Barack Obama rejected the notion that Americans were entrenched in hostile camps of red states and blue states, insisting that we are "the United States of America." But in the ensuing presidential election, the country was a picture of polarization, with the South and the heartland voting Republican as usual and the West Coast and Northeast remaining Democratic. So Obama was obviously living in a fool's paradise.

Or maybe not. In this election, the country looks eerily like a game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Baltimore Ravens—a riot of purple. Instead of turning to candidates like George W. Bush and John Kerry, who had limited appeal beyond their party faithful, both Democrats and Republicans have shown an openness to leaders whose appeal blurs the usual lines of ideology.

On the one side you have Obama, who has gotten gentle treatment from some conservative thinkers despite his embrace by Ted Kennedy and MoveOn.org.

Columnist and TV commentator George Will describes him as "an adult aiming to reform the real world rather than an adolescent fantasizing mock-heroic 'fights' against fictitious villains in a left-wing cartoon version of this country." New York Times columnist David Brooks says, "Obama is changing the tone of American liberalism."

On the other side you have John McCain, the staunchest supporter of Bush's unpopular war, who nonetheless manages to be what conservatives call the "darling of the liberal media." His appeal is broad enough that in 2004, Kerry considered asking him to be his running mate. Slate.com editor Jacob Weisberg hails McCain as "a Teddy Roosevelt progressive—militant, crusading, reformist and hostile to concentrated power."

McCain may alienate disciples of Rush Limbaugh, and Obama stirs tepid enthusiasm among liberals who would prefer a rabid pit bull. But the two confirm that Americans have never really been all that divided. Most Americans are not red or blue but a bit of both.

In his 2006 book Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, Morris Fiorina of the Hoover Institution and Stanford University noted that on the bulk of issues, there is substantial agreement across the country. In 2000, 44 percent of voters in red states said the government is almost always inefficient—but so did 39 percent of those in blue states. Fully 70 percent of blue staters said we should "do whatever it takes to protect the environment," a view shared by 64 percent of red staters.

Majorities in both red and blue states were very glad that Bill Clinton was not eligible for a third term, and majorities opposed higher defense spending. In red areas, oddly, most people have a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party—just as in blue locales, most take a positive view of the GOP. In both, the largest ideological category consists of moderates.

In recent decades, though, the two parties have moved away from each other, defining themselves more and more in strictly ideological terms. As a result, the electorate appears polarized when it isn't. "Elections are close, but voters are not deeply or bitterly divided," writes Fiorina. "In both red and blue states, a solid majority of voters see themselves as positioned between two relatively extreme parties."

It's not surprising that so many Democrats and independents prefer Obama to Hillary Clinton, who brags about the scars she carries from the partisan fights of the 1990s—neglecting to mention that she inflicted as many bite wounds as she suffered. That's why 42 percent of Americans view her unfavorably, compared to just 30 percent for Obama and 31 percent for McCain. While Clinton seems to relish stoking partisan fires, Obama comes across like Smokey Bear.

McCain's GOP supporters hope to persuade conservatives he is one of them. But part of his electoral appeal is that conservatives dislike him, suggesting he will not refight all the trench battles of the last 16 years.

One reason he attracts moderates and independents, as with Obama, is that he strikes a comparatively temperate tone. McCain's voting record is nearly as conservative as Obama's is liberal. But as Fiorina told me, both convey that they don't find compromise villainous and hateful.

"It's not just the positions you hold," he says, that are important to voters, "but the positions you can accept." After eight years of obstinacy in the Oval Office, a little flexibility doesn't sound too bad.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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  1. The problem with McCain AND Obama is that neither is committed to the principle of limited government in any form. The comprimises they have enacted and are likely to enact in the future all expand governmet power at the expense of the individual. The both instinctively think government is the solution to all of societies problems.

    also, your boss Matt Welch is a sell-out.

  2. Geez, way to flatter McCain with the front-page picture. Emperor Palpatine has nothing on his sallow, evil-eaten features.

    UNLIMITED POWERRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!

  3. In this election, the country looks eerily like a game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Baltimore Ravens-a riot of purple.

    Waka waka waka!

    Seriously, if you have to reach this deep into metaphor barrel…

  4. also, your boss Matt Welch is a sell-out.

    Why is that?

  5. Seriously, if you have to reach this deep into metaphor barrel…

    It means your comparison fish were all eaten by the grammar bear?

  6. It means your comparison fish were all eaten by the grammar bear?

    Number One Threat to America!

  7. My gut really struggles to envision Obama beating McCain.

    I’d be willing to be a good chunk of change that McCain wins all the Bush 2004 states minus Iowa for a 279-261 Electoral college win. He might lose the popular vote, but what’s that matter?

  8. 279-258 that is

  9. 279-259 that is

  10. Both McCain and Obama are dudes whose public, media image is totally at odds with what their real personas are. Obama is a full-on big government socialist, but he seems like Mr. Nice Guy (not our poster, and not Alice Cooper). McCain is a raving warmongering maniac a la Teddy Roosevelt, but he’s portrayed as a “maverick” and also a moderate.

    So we have two con men running. Super. At least Romney was an obvious con man and cyborg, though he’s not as attractive a cyborg as Summer Glau.

  11. I’m afraid of presidents who compromise almost as much as I’m afraid of presidents whose party also controls Congress. They pass more laws that they should otherwise veto.

  12. At least Romney was an obvious con man and cyborg, though he’s not as attractive a cyborg as Summer Glau.

    I still prefer crazy-ninja Summer to emotionless cyborg Summer.

  13. Both are a little annoying; crazy and emotionless. At least on The Unit she was normal, but that was just a guest role.

  14. Slate.com editor Jacob Weisberg hails McCain as “a Teddy Roosevelt progressive-militant, crusading, reformist and hostile to concentrated power.”

    Hails?

    This does not exactly fill me with a warm, sunshiny glow.

  15. This article suffers from the false equivalency virus.

    Republicans and Democrats are both eager to get beyond partisanship? I see record turnout in contest after contest on the Democratic side, to vote for two DLC-centrists, and significantly depressed turnout on the Republican side.

    Equating the 2004 candidates as equally ferocious partisans is absurt, too. The line on Kerry in the 2004 election was that he was running on George Bush’s foreign policy, but promising to implement it better. George Bush campaigned hard against gay marriage, John Kerry said “Me, too” and tried to finesse the issue with civil unions. Ditto with trying to finesse his abortion answer – see any Republicans talking about how much they respected pro-choicers? We’re always being told that those partisan blue-states chose him for his “electability,” his supposed ability to appeal to red-staters. Chosen over the candidate who represented “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” remember.

    And finally, we’re told that because Hillary Clinton is so loathed by the right, that’s how we know she’s a ferocious partisan. Well, bull – the right has been murder on any high-visibility Democrat since the 1992 elections, whether they were as partisan as Howard Dean or as accommodationist as Tom Daschle.

    For almost 20 years, the Republicans have striven to increase partisanship by hammering on wedge issues – usually culture- or terror-war-related and the Democratis have striven to smooth them over. John Kerry used Obama-esque rhetoric about uniting the country, too. He just didn’t express it as well. The reduction in partisanship in this election cycle is a consequence of the Republicans shutting it off because they realize that ripping the country in half will leave them with the smaller half. The Democrats aren’t really doing anything differently than they did in 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004.

  16. I think that was a Firefly reference, no?

  17. Not contradicting joe, just seeing how this works:

    the right left has been murder on any high-visibility Democrat Republican since the 1992 elections, whether they were as partisan as Howard Dean Karl Rove or as accommodationist as Tom Daschle Bill Frist.

  18. “Obama stirs tepid enthusiasm among liberals who would prefer a rabid pit bull”

    Actually, he’s been a darling of the activist left for at least 4 years. Wouldn’t want an inconvenient fact to smudge a nice rhetorical point, though.

  19. John Kerry used Obama-esque rhetoric about uniting the country, too.

    How quickly they forget that Bush also ran on rehtoric about uniting the country. Everybody does.

  20. I tend to agree with joe, though not necessarily for the same reasons he gives. This election season is all about dragging the diseased remains of the GOP out behind the barn and putting it out of its misery. Whether it’s Obama or Hillary who pulls the trigger is just a minor detail.

  21. I think that was a Firefly reference, no?

    Do you mean ninja-crazy? Yes, that would be a Firefly reference.

  22. RC,

    You mean, the left has been murder on John McCain? They were murder on post-9/11 George Bush? How about that William Cohen?

    Nope, that doesn’t work at all.

    Though you do raise a good point about Bush’s rhetoric in 2000 – he did run on “a new kind of politics” as “a uniter, not a divider” and “a compassionate conservative.” He did this specifically to contrast himself with the Republicans in Washington, who even he castigated for being too partisan.

  23. McCain’s a “maverick” because he’s a hothead and doesn’t get along easily for a politician, just as Giuliani’s a “conservative” because he’s mean, and Obama’s a “moderate” because he’s not Jesse Jackson, and Lyndon LaRouche a “libertarian” because he’s different and opposes a subversive conspiracy.

  24. In my country, you murder left!

  25. no one wins when you compromise. an election should be about the logic of philosophies, not about who will appease the majority of the uneducated voters.

    and Hillary is a centrist? good god.

  26. The article’s theory: We’re not a poloarized nation.

    The article’s proof: Using polls divided by state (red or blue) to show that opinons on topics come close in percentages.

    Problem with author’s use of these statistics: Red states almost contain as many “blue voters” and blue states contain almost as many “red voters” so it stands to reason that polled on the issues that the percentages of polls would be close.

    The entire premise of this article is flawed based on the “proof” provided.

  27. I agree with Joe that the (presidential candidate) Democrats have recently been more centrist than the Republicans. (The one clear and notable exception is the Democratic rhetoric on Social Security). The Republicans require that all of their candidates repeat over and over how conservative (in the GOP sense, that is) that they are, while Democrats are not required to repeat and promise liberalism in order to win a primary. I think that the GOP is painting McCain into a sort of corner that will not help him out in the general election, while the Democrats are giving a lot of room for Clinton or Obama to grab the center. The majority of America does not want another president on the social and military right, which is probably why you can buy John McCain to win at Intrade, paying better than 3 to 1 odds. http://www.intrade.com

  28. Obama comes across like Smokey Bear.

    I’d hate to see that analogy play out. The Smokey the Bear campaign to extinguish all wildfires did more long-term harm to wilderness areas than almost any other environmental policy ever proposed.

    “It’s not just the positions you hold,” he says, that are important to voters, “but the positions you can accept.” After eight years of obstinacy in the Oval Office, a little flexibility doesn’t sound too bad.

    Where did the “gridlock is good” sentiment go? I’d really hate to see an administration of “we’ll vote for your liberal policies if you’ll vote for our conservative ones.” We’ll get shafted from both sides.

    Weisberg hails McCain as “a Teddy Roosevelt progressive-militant, crusading, reformist and hostile to concentrated power.”

    How is McCain-Feingold even remotely “hostile to concentrated power?”

  29. on the Democratic side, to vote for two DLC-centrists

    National Journal rated Kerry as the most liberal Senator in 2003, and Obama for 2007.

    Clinton is ranked as the 16th most liberal senator.

    http://nj.nationaljournal.com/voteratings/

  30. The articles theory “we’re not polarized, most are centrist with a minority of extremists on both sides.”

    Proof: most commenters moderately bash both candidates, with the minority of joe and his counterparts playing partisan yet again.

  31. On one front, I was at war with the capitalist democracies of the West.

    On the other front, I was at war with the totalitarian communist Soviet Union in the east.

    Therefore, I am the centrist.

  32. No handle guy,

    Politicians always score higher on the liberal and conservative scales when running for the presidential nomination, as they 1) are pushed to vote party-line on hot-button issues and 2) only go back to DC for the hot-button issues.

    Nither Obama nor Clinton has put forward a single-payer health care plan. Clinton voted for the Iraq War!

  33. You mean, the left has been murder on John McCain?

    Why should they be? He crosses the aisle to push their legislation across the goal line.

    Does the lack of high-profile Democrats doing the same somehow speak the a lack of partisanship among Democrats, or a higher degree of party discipline?

    They were murder on post-9/11 George Bush?

    Where have you been since 2003, joe? Have you somehow missed the unbroken gusher of vitriol levelled at GW Bush and everyone associated with his administration?

    Sure, there was a short honeymoon after 9/11, but I think that was pretty sui generis.

    How about that William Cohen?

    What about him?

  34. Obama comes across like Smokey Bear.

    Not at Paul Krugman’s house

  35. The Smokey the Bear campaign to extinguish all wildfires did more long-term harm to wilderness areas than almost any other environmental policy ever proposed.

    Wha?

  36. RC Dean,

    Does the lack of high-profile Democrats doing the same Uh, what?

    You do remember that the AUMF bill in the Senate was called “Edwards-Lieberman,” right? And in the House, it was “Gephardt-Something?” The VP candidate and Speaker are generally considered to be high-profile, you know.

    You do remember that Hillary Clinton voted for and spoke out in favor of the Iran censure bill, right?

    You do remember that John Kerry won the nomination after voting for the AUMF, right?

    You are aware of the FISA debate, right?

    I don’t know what world you live in, but in this world, a lack of Democratic support for Republican efforts is not an oft-cited problem.

    Where have you been since 2003, joe? Right here, watching the painfully-slow evolution from sycophantic fear of denouncing him among DC Democrats get chipped away by a public that is fiercely anti-Bush, and frustrated by the Democrats’ unwillingness to take him on.

    What about him? He was a Republican Senator who was appointed by the Democratic President to hold the second-highest position in the cabinet.

    RC’s showing the defining characteristic of Republican partisanship; the assertion of Democratic partisanship above and beyond any evidence. If you go back to the National Review or Weekly Standard of 2001-2003, you will find ferocious denunciations of “partisan” Democrats, even as they were providing near-unanimous support for the USA PATRIOT Act. Tom Daschle, alily-livered accommodationist who makes Harry Reid look like Russ Feingold, was accused of “caring more about unions than the safety of the American people” for trying to pass the DHS bill while the Republicans were blocking it.

    Like so much else, this is an article of faith, which is simply not amenable to evidence.

  37. Like so much else, this is an article of faith, which is simply not amenable to evidence.

    Pot, is that you?

  38. Nope, it’s me, the member of the reality-based community.

    You know, the one with examples and logic and stuff.

  39. Neither here nor there…

    But my red-blooded conservative, ex-marine-DI, rigidly-catholic pop told me yesterday he plans to vote for Obama in the VA primaries tomorrow. This after voting as a republican since 1960.

    No reason other than he will simply not countenance Hilary in the general election. aka “Anyone But”-voting. He re-registered as an independent just to vote against her. I was impressed. Normally I’d have expected him to just vote for whomever would be most pro-life. He was more pragmatic. or maybe Hilary reminds him of his ex-wife. I think it’s probably that too. 🙂

    He basically argued that he wasnt particularly jazzed about the GOP side, but was horrified at the idea of another clinton term. His thinking on McCain was “why not”? But not particularly supportive. He said he’d tolerate either an Obama or McCain presidency, just no Hilary. I wonder how many people think the same way as him? A bunch I’d guess. I hope Obama takes VA. He seems to have some momentum going for him now.

    That said…

    only on hit&run will people say things like, “Smokey the Bear was one of the most damaging government programs of all time!”

    I mean, it’s just too funny. Sometimes you have to step away for a week or so and then come back, and you realize, “my god, what a gang of uptight nerds!” 🙂

  40. GILMORE,

    I know a bunch of liberals in Massachusetts who voted for McCain, just to make sure Romney didn’t make it to the general.

  41. Its time for the return of the Jefferson Democrat complete with our greatest President’s hatred of:

    Standing Armies
    Gun Control
    Religion
    Corporations
    A National Bank
    Patriot Act,,er, Alien and Sedition Acts

    My fantasy candidate anyway…. The only politician close to these views is Senator Jim Webb. Its too bad we have wandered so far away from our heritage.

  42. Taktix?

    The Smokey the Bear campaign to extinguish all wildfires did more long-term harm to wilderness areas than almost any other environmental policy ever proposed.

    Wha?

    The aggressive fire suppression policy of the Smokey Bear program meant that small fires were put out as soon as possible thereby allowing debris to build up in the understory of forests. Also it led to forests with a far greater density of trees than would occur naturally.

    This led to much worse fires later. See Yellowstone, Los Alamos etc.

    Forest management now is based far more on controlled burns and other brush clearing and tree thinning methods as well as better thought risk assessment of fires.

    Los Alamos is, of course, a rather bad case as it is an example of a burn that was allowed to get out of control. But the fire was worse because of the overgrown understory. Mechanical thinning followed by selective burning might be a better approach in such cases.

    There’s a long way to go and there’s also a few decades worth of bad policy to undo.

    California is also a case that suggests that a one-size fits-all national forest policy is not a good idea.

  43. Mechanical thinning followed by selective burning might be a better approach in such cases.

    It might be, but fuel reduction plans routinely get tied up in the courts by self-styled do-gooders who cannot differentiate between evil corporate clear cutting and cleaning out beetle kill before it gets turned into a raging inferno.

    And if some idiot builds a log house with a cedar shingle roof in the trees, he had better be able to protect (or extinguish) it on his own dime.

  44. P Brooks

    Agreed. On all counts.

  45. RC’s showing the defining characteristic of Republican partisanship; the assertion of Democratic partisanship above and beyond any evidence.

    joe, really, claiming the Dems are above partisanship is just so laughably . . . partisan of you.

    Did I deny Republican partisanship? No. When was the last time I even said anything good about the Republicans?

    But let me call out the Dems in a “pox on both their houses” post, and suddenly I’m a raging Republican.

    Mote, beam, dude.

  46. Speaking of purple (Deep Purple, that is):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BUJiI–56Pk

  47. This article raises an interesting question. Which is the more tired theme? “America is split between red and blue states,” or, “America is a great sea of purple”?

  48. This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

  49. I know what you’re thinking, ’cause right now I’m thinking the same thing. Actually, I’ve been thinking it ever since I got here: Why oh why didn’t I take the BLUE pill?

  50. If you’d told us the truth, we would’ve told you to shove that red pill right up your ass.

  51. Good point reminding us of Dubya’s ’00 “unity” campaign, RC Dean. I’d honestly let that slip my mind!

    Gilmore – I’m a 20something lifelong Democrat with fiscally-conservative leanings, and I think your father and I have something in common: while I’m not *excited* by Obama necessarily, Clinton’s desire for nationalized health care and her stated desire to “manage” the economy, (“staking [her] presidency on that”), not to mention her changing with the wind on the Iraq War, AND the fact that she is really, really ambitious (watch how she talks about her campaign in terms of “I” statements instead of “we” statements, like I’m pretty sure other candidates usually do)…

    Well, suffice it to say that a guy who at least tries to get along with the opposite side of the aisle (be it McCain or Obama, to be fair) is preferable to a devoutly federalist, hard-core partisan like Clinton.

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