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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Uptick In ‘Symbolically Conservative, Operationally Liberal’ Constituency May Steer Future

Note: this item by J.P. Green was originally published on February 23, 2009.
Paul Starr has a short, but insightful post, “Breaking the Grip of the Past” at The American Prospect today, which sheds light on president Obama’s political strategy. As Starr explains:

For Barack Obama and the Democrats, the problem is not just the hard-right conservatives who dominate the Republican Party and the right-wing media echo chamber. Given the urgency of present circumstances, the critical impediment may lie in the ambivalent center — among the middle-of-the-road Democrats and Republicans who hold the margin of votes in the Senate, much of the business and opinion-leader establishment, and a large part of the public who are not strongly affiliated with any party or ideological position.
Winning over those groups poses the key challenge if Congress and the new administration are to free the country from the dead right hand of the past. Obama’s mix of conciliatory and assertive stances — an openness to talking with the other side and a willingness to concede, in principle, that it may have a point, yet a determination when pressed to fight for his policies — is not just an expression of his personality. It’s the rational strategy of a politician who can’t get his program through unless he peels off some part of the opposition.

Starr goes on to note Obama’s tendency “not to confront conservatism in general terms” which Starr believes makes some sense because “Many Americans who identify themselves as conservative nonetheless favor liberal positions on specific policies” — a “symbolically conservative, but operationally liberal” group estimated at 22 percent of the public in 2004 by James A. Stimson in his book Tides of Consent. Starr believes surveys indicate there may be a “big increase” in this group since the election.
Starr believes Obama’s ‘whatever works’ rhetoric is calibrated to address this group and the “deep American strain of post-partisanship.” WaPo columnist E.J. Dionne sees the evolving consensus on bipartisanship a little differently in his column today on “Obama’s FDR Moment“:

And when it comes to bipartisanship, the point is not the numerical count of Republicans who vote for this or that. It’s whether frightened citizens sense that government is working…”People want the basic stuff fixed,” said state Rep. Vernon Sykes, a Democrat who chairs the Finance and Appropriations Committee in the Ohio House. “They don’t have a romantic notion of bipartisanship. They just want people to come together to solve problems.”

Post or bipartisanship notwithstanding, Starr credits Obama with drawing a line in the sand against more tax cuts for the rich and do-nothing government. Starr feels this rhetorically-nuanced approach could well “educate the public about the folly of conservative views and help move the country toward a new progressive center.” However, Starr warns,

it’s crucial, perhaps more for others than for Obama, to continue to press the case that our present problems have ideological roots — that they are not due equally to all sides but rather to the mistaken premises, malignant neglect, and sometimes outright malfeasance of a long era of conservative government…But if he concedes too much, it could be another version of disabling triangulation

It’s a delicate balancing act, and the President’s communications skills in educating the public will be on wide display tomorrow, when he addresses the nation. It may be Obama’s “FDR moment,” but he should also remember MLK’s dictum “Ultimately, a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.”

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