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Obama And The Lonely Center

The most striking theme in today's Washington Post poll is, once again, the extraordinary apathy of the liberal Democratic base. Registered voters basically split on whether they plan to vote for a Republican or a Democrat in the House, with 47% favoring the former and 45% the latter. But among likely voters, the GOP opens up a mammoth 53%-40% advantage. The enthusiasm gap here is a canyon.

Here's another interesting finding from the poll, pointing in the same direction. One question asks, "Do you think Obama's views on most issues are too (liberal) for you, too (conservative) for you, or just about right?" 45% say too liberal, 45% say just about right. Another 9% say too conservative. Now, saying Obama is too conservative is not the same thing as saying you won't vote for the Democrats. The rational left-winger would still vote for the moderate Democrats over the extremist Republicans. But it does show the importance of a sizeable block of dissastisfied liberal public opinion.

Elite opinion usually demands that the president "govern from the center." But governing from the center is not working (which is not to say Obama had a superior alternative.) He has spent two years pushing a classic moderate Republican health care reform, an economic stimulus program along the lines of what most economic forecasters were calling for, a centrist plan to recapitalize banks, and a popular and mainstream financial reform bill. But the general political dynamic consists of Republicans decrying socialism, liberals denouncing a sell-out, and moderate deficit hawks clucking that the deficit hawkery doesn't go far enough.

Some insightful commentary on this poisonous dynamic was provided by Tony Blair:

Ironically, Blair says, activists on the left often assist their right-wing opponents by piling on the pols who lean their way rather than defending them against a conservative onslaught that he says is "vicious" and begins from "the word 'go.'" Blair says the politics of the day can leave ostensibly left-leaning leaders like President Obama "in an isolated position," with right-wing opponents eager to destroy them and the activist left (more often than not) happy to help.
"I love my own politics and progressives and all the rest of it," Blair told ABC's Christiane Amanpour in an unaired portion of his This Week interview from Sunday. "But if we have a weakness as a class, when the right get after us and attack our progressive leaders, instead of defending them we tend to say, 'Yeah, well, really we've got a lot of complaints about them, too.'"
Blair said that the tendency of the left to pile on rather than defend its own leaders can leave their politicians alone to face the right wing attack machine, which Blair says is merciless.

As I've stated many times, the overwhelming cause of the Democrats' perils is that they held overstretched majorities while taking control of government at the outset of a massive economic crisis. But the inability of the left to handle majority status is an important contributor to the dilemma. It's not surprising that Democrats would lose independent voters, or that Republicans would be wildly enthusiastic, when they control the government and push agressive reforms during an economic calamity. But they sheer sullenness of the liberal base does seem to be avoidable and puzzling.