26 May 2011

NY26 postmortem: the '40 within 40' formula for moderate independents

The special election in New York's 26th congressional district may have been a referendum on "Ryancare," but the upset victory of the Democratic candidate in a traditionally Republican territory wasn't necessarily a vindication for "Obamacare." Republicans, of course, blame the debacle on the third-party candidacy of self-proclaimed Tea Partier Jack Davis, a former Democrat whose TP credentials are thus suspect for many Republicans who claim the TP label as their own. Because Davis allegedly confused the electorate, earning 8% of the vote in the process, Republicans argue that their loss proves nothing about the public mood. But SUNY-Albany political scientist Bruce Gyory claims that the upset proves continued volatility and dissatisfaction among those swing voters who think of themselves as independents and moderates. They form what Gyory calls the "40 within 40" cohort: 40% of the 40% of voters who call themselves "independent" also call themselves "moderates." In his op-ed for the New York Daily News, Gyory argues that moderates repudiated Republicans in NY26 precisely because they saw "Ryancare" as ideological extremism, just as they arguably repudiated "Obamacare" last November for the same reason.

According to Gyory, the "40 within 40" are essentially reactionary, seeing no alternative to voting against what they don't like when they see nothing or no one to vote for.

These moderate independents are with neither Democrats nor Republicans ideologically. Instead, defined more by what they dislike than what they like, they have swung their vote as if it were Thor's hammer: in 2006 against Republicans over Iraq; in 2008 against the Republicans over the financial collapse, and in 2009 and 2010 against the Democrats over debt, deficits, anemic job growth and the public's fears of renewed inflation, even as the Fed was trying to combat deflation. Consequently, Hochul now joins Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, another example of a special election upset sounding as a fire bell in the night to both parties.

The parties, unfortunately, are awfully slow learners. Though the polling data have consistently encouraged elected officials to come up with smart solutions for long-term unemployment, both major parties have preferred to pursue their Holy Grails - expanding health care coverage for the Democrats and transforming Medicare into a market
-based voucher for the GOP - rather than confronting the jobs crisis head-on.

Gyory claims that the "40 within 40" are interested in job creation above all, but it's unclear what he or they mean by "smart" solutions, except that such solutions are presumably non-ideological. The focus on health care itself by both major parties reportedly frustrates the "moderate independents," who presumably want a more "head on" job-creation program. That might seem to give the advantage to Democrats, who are usually more willing to create public-sector jobs in a pinch, but Gyory says that other bipartisan plans already exist, but haven't been acted on during the clamor over health insurance. Job-creation strikes the moderate independents as pragmatic, while health-care or health-insurance reform smacks of ideological utopianism on both sides.

Debunking Democratic triumphalism, Gyory warns: "Republican mistakes will not secure support for Democratic policies. There is a powerful hunger for nonideological government that yields near-term results, not ever more rhetorical and ideological locking of horns." He holds out the implicit possibility that the first of the two parties to adopt the desired pragmatic course can win in 2012. But he notes that both major parties "practice the politics of photosynthesis. They've bent away from the center and toward their political bases." Since a party candidate has to be nominated before he can run, this imperative may be inescapable. If so, the moderate independents are unlikely ever to be satisfied by Bipolarchy offerings that are tailored to win base-driven primaries. Gyory's metaphor may seem unscientific if you think of the base as a lamp and the general electorate as the sun, but that might only prove his larger point that the current party system doesn't seem to make sense. Can an alternative be built on a foundation of non-ideological pragmatism? We won't know until we try.

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