Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Dems and the Center

I've been reading lots of commentary lately on how when you poll people at the political center - so-called swing voters - they tend to align themselves with the Democrats on social issues, but that doesn't stop them from voting Republican. Much of the commentary concludes that security is the most singificant factor in causing swing voters to choose a "strong on defense" Republican, even though they don't agree with that candidate's social agenda. I do think that the stereotype of Republicans as being better on defense and "law and order" issues helped Bush win reelection, but what about the first time when the nation was pretty evenly split between the candidates?

I think Bush's self-portrait as a "compassionate conservative" who believed in "a hand up, not a handout" was a significant factor in his first victory. His campaign recognized that voters did not support a hard-right social agenda, so they depicted Bush as advancing policies of individual responsibility and opportunity. I think that resonates with voters. I believe that many swing voters and low-income wage earners view the Democrats as a party which gives handouts to people they see as the undeserving poor, and will perpetuate and even expand upon "welfare" programs they see as a wealth transfer from them to the poor. Recall Reagan, who is credited with "shifting the middle" and his tales of the welfare queen who drives a Cadillac? That perception still resonates, particularly with people who live from paycheck-to-paycheck.

It even resonates with some who are the beneficiaries of welfare programs, such as food stamps, Section 8 housing subsidies or Medicaid. Some don't see the benefits they receive as welfare, and some may believe that they pay for those benefits through their taxes. But some probably feel that that it's okay to take a subsidy if you're working (the proverbial "hand up"), but not to get a hand-out if you're not. Some fear a tax increase.

Bill Clinton's popularity was not driven by the notion that he was a hard-as-nails Republican who would increase our military might. He was frequently depicted as having avoided the draft, of being weak on military, and even of weakening our defense capabilities. But his welfare reform was pretty conservative and in the eyes of many was not-so-compassionate. Yet the reforms resonated with voters to the extent that the Republican party frequently accused Clinton of stealing their ideas. When was the last time one party accused the other of "stealing" an idea that was a loser with the voters?

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