Independents are Controlling the Action
Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, November 12, 2006 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”
Salit: There was some talk about the role that independent voters played in the outcome on Tuesday.
Newman: Yes and no. John McLaughlin asked a specific question about the role of independents and Larry O’Donnell completely ignored it.
Salit: Right. But McLaughlin said ‘The independents are controlling the action. You can’t understand what happened on Election Day, if you just look at the parties. You’ve got to look at what happened with independents.’ On “The Chris Matthews Show,” Cynthia Tucker picked up on it, too.
Newman: Yes, Cynthia did.
Newman: More importantly, it was the independents that made the war the issue of the campaign. Where else did it come from? It didn’t come from the Democrats. It didn’t come from the Republicans. It came from the independent movement.
Salit: Republicans were prosecuting the war and the Democrats supported the Republican policy. They ran a pro-war candidate in 2004. Who speaks out are the independents.
Salit: So, when some people report the numbers, as you pointed out, Larry O’Donnell doesn’t want to touch this with a ten foot pole, at least not on TV.
Newman: At least a five foot pole.
Salit: OK. Everybody sees the numbers. The exit polls are undeniable. But, you’re asking how did the war become the issue of the midterms, since it was the case that both the Republicans and the Democrats had a shared perspective on the war, which was that we had to go to war.
Newman: I think that if we take a careful look at the history, you saw all kinds of protest and objection to the war. It wasn’t the Left – it was the independents. Most political outfits in town didn’t want any part of that and didn’t allow it. The big liberal newspapers came to it rather late. But the momentum happened on the ground. And it was independents that gave voice to it and defined it into an issue. That’s the traditional and classical role of independents. And it’s why independents are so important.
Salit: When you say the “traditional and classical role of independents,” you’re talking about defining an issue from the outside, from the bottom up, which then gets enough social weight, enough critical mass, enough grassroots popularity that one or both of the major parties are forced to respond to it and to retool themselves.
Newman: It’s usually one party.
Salit: This happened with the issue of slavery and abolitionism. It was true around women’s suffrage. It was true around labor reforms in the early part of the 20th century. And it was true around the balanced budget and political reform agenda of the Perot movement in the 1990s.
Newman: Sometimes it’s so powerful that it creates parties. But not always. Independents can’t sit back and wait for 1854 to come back again.
Salit: Right. So, independents played their historically traditional role.
Newman: Yes. And then they went out and voted for it in recognizable numbers, which meant voting for Democrats, which makes sense because independent candidates, for the most part, can’t win.
Salit: They can’t win. They can’t get into the debates. And sometimes they can’t get on the ballot. They can’t raise money. They can’t get enough viable support in the mainstream.
Newman: I don’t know if I want to go to “they can’t get enough viable support in the mainstream.” There’s a tendency for everybody in this country – we’re all like this – to think that “mainstream” means “electoral.” But the mainstream is a much larger stream than just what happens on Election Day. It’s a very big stream. It’s cultural, it’s social. So, it’s fair to say, independent candidates – and this is surely true at a national level – are not able to win elections at this point in time, given the current conditions.
Salit: You made a distinction before between the independents and the Left, in terms of who was able to bring the anti-war issue to a level of critical mass. How do you define that difference? The Left protested at the Republican National Convention in 2004 in New York. But they weren’t the force that drove this re-alignment, de-alignment, political transition, whatever you want to call it.
Newman: The Left is not able to do that by themselves because they don’t have that big a connection to the people of the country. Independents have a substantial connection.
Newman: Well, Russert then essentially tried to square it for him. He said ‘Aren’t you really saying that we should either send hundreds of thousands more troops in and win this war or we should get our troops out? Let’s do one or the other.’ McCain sort of grudgingly agreed to that formulation, which I think has got to be his position. He’s got to say We have to win it or get out of there and I favor winning it. Here’s what that entails. But we have to decide one way or the other. But, I think McCain’s position is actually a weak one. I don’t know who put it together for him. When politicians start attributing positions to their conscience, you know their staff has come up short.
Salit: Joe Lieberman was on “Meet the Press,” too.
Newman: The independent.
Salit: The independent. Right. Here’s the spin on Lieberman. The Senate is 51-49 Democrat, with the two independents, Lieberman and Bernie Sanders, who was elected to the Senate from Vermont, caucusing with the Democrats. Democrats have the majority. If either were to caucus with the Republicans, that would shift the balance of power to the GOP.
Newman: They won’t. And Lieberman’s already cut his deal with Harry Reid so that’s not in the cards. He’s not going to threaten the Democratic Party. He’ll play ball on a host of issues.
Salit: But not unlike McCain, he is at odds with the direction of independents.
Newman: Less so, though.
Salit: Less so?
Newman: He’s left himself much more wiggle room than McCain has. At the moment, McCain doesn’t want to go up against Bush.
Salit: He’s waiting for the right moment to go up against Bush.
Salit: Larry O’Donnell said, ‘Can we all stop calling Karl Rove a genius?’
Newman: I think the answer is no.
Salit: Chris Matthews asked why Rove’s vision – a vision for a big tent Republican Party – didn’t materialize.
Newman: What materialized instead was the extraordinary and continued growth of the independent movement.
Salit: You disagree with O’Donnell, obviously. O’Donnell says ‘The politics of Karl Rove, the politics of division are out the window. The American people repudiated that. You can’t call him a genius.’
Newman: That’s like saying that we should retract the word “genius” from describing Einstein because a paper he wrote after the Special Theory of Relativity was not accepted by three journals. Rove was a genius for picking up on what made it possible for the Republicans to come into power for the length of time they did. That’s sufficient for identifying him as a genius. And, things have happened in the world and he wasn’t able to move with them. Maybe he didn’t see them. But, it’s not clear there was any other position he could take and still be a Republican strategist.
Newman: You can’t do anything, even if you might want to.
Salit: So you have this big turn of events in the political world. And independents are a big part of these changes. What would you put on the list of things that independents need to focus on now that the 2008 presidential election has begun?
Newman: I’d take off the agenda as the dominant question Are we going to run an independent for president? Or, Can we elect an independent for president? The answer to the latter is Probably not. The answer to the former is We don’t know, unless someone has a hell of a lot of money. But there are things to be done. Independents can participate in this process at every level. We can try to influence the issues around which these candidates run, as we did with the war, and candidates like Howard Dean, to some extent with Al Sharpton, and Ralph Nader. We have to participate in the political process without thinking there’s going to be anything resembling immediate electoral gains for independents. Because elections just cost too much money. But that doesn’t mean you can’t influence a process.
Salit: Back to the issue of the war policy. Bush is waiting now to get the report from the Baker-Hamilton commission which one of the commentators described as ‘Bush’s golden parachute’ out of Iraq.
Newman: It’s his golden parachute out of Iraq and into his mother and father’s living room.
Salit: Right. Maureen Dowd’s metaphor on this was to think of a kid who has been captured by a cult and then the parents send a de-programmer in to get them out of the cult and bring them back into the bosom of the family. That’s what’s happened with Bush. He was co-opted by the cult of the neo-cons and Jim Baker is the de-programmer who’s going to get him and bring him back.
Newman: Except the family didn’t send the de-programmer in. Bush, Jr. called for him. The analogy breaks down right there. Junior is looking to be rescued. He is profoundly concerned with his legacy and, if you were reviewing the legacy right now, he wouldn’t do well.
Salit: Larry O’Donnell offered an acid prescription for Nancy Pelosi, who’s expected to be Speaker of the House. He says she’s got to work with the conservative caucus in the Democratic Party. If she doesn’t do that the Democrats lose control of the House two years down the road. In other words, you can’t run this thing and sustain it by simply empowering the Old Guard, traditional liberal leadership of the Democratic Party.
Newman: Why would they want to? I think O’Donnell is talking through his hat. That would be a foolish thing to even consider. They just won this election with the mix that they now have of a left, center and almost right coalition. Why would they break that coalition up?
Salit: Good point.
Newman: The left of the Democratic Party gains more by that coalition than did the right of the Democratic Party. So, why would they break it up, tactically? Why would one even consider that?
Salit: The conservative Republicans and conservative analysts generally are saying that even though the Republicans lost on Tuesday, it was more of a victory for conservatism than the conservatives are getting credit for, because so many of the new Democrats that were elected to the House are conservatives.
Newman: Conservatism, as it’s being discussed here, is an abstraction. If you have a need to get some credit for conservatism in that abstract form, that doesn’t say very much for how good you’re feeling about anything, including conservatism. It’s not a victory for conservatism. There’s no material basis to interpret it that way. I don’t think conservatism is a dead letter in American politics at all, but conservatism suffered a significant defeat. Will the conservatives come back? I suspect so. They’re probably figuring out how to do it right now. Will they succeed? I don’t know. We’ll see. It’s difficult to say. It’s the most telling defeat for conservatism in some time now. I’m not surprised by it. It was the anticipated result. But I think this is a bigger defeat than even the people who expected them to lose were anticipating. It has significance.
Salit: Thank you.