This is sort of a thinking-out-loud post. I just read John Podhoretz’s column about how Obama has made such a mess of his political fortunes, and it got me wondering about something that’s been perplexing me for a while.
The “70-30 issue” is a cliche in political circles: Basically, the idea is that there are all sorts of issues where 70 percent of Americans are for X and 30 percent are against X (yes, some of this is dependent on how poll questions are asked and so on). The trick for most/many politicians is to always be on the 70 side. Of course, this is harder than it sounds because the party base is often on the 30 side and it’s hard to break with your base.
When you look at Obama’s troubles, it’s kind of shocking how he’s managed to maneuver the party to the 30 percent position (or allowed it to drift that way) on so many issues. Health care isn’t quite at 70-30, but it’s close. The Ground Zero mosque is a 70-30 issue. So is the Arizona immigration bill. Arthur Brooks wrote a whole book about how Obama stands athwart 70 percent of the country on a host of economic issues and attitudes. On issues having to do with Gitmo and terror detainees, it seems that he started out on the 70 side and quickly flipped the framing of the questions so he was on the 30 side, and now he’s in a bit of a mush.
One question I have, and maybe brother Geraghty or someone else around here knows the answer, is whether Bush got himself in a similar mess. Bush was more unpopular than Obama, particularly later in his presidency (and Obama has a lot more room to drop). But I don’t remember his problems stemming from this sort of dynamic. Yes, there was his Social Security plan, which was never all that popular, alas. And I don’t remember the polling on immigration, but it seems to me that his problem there could be more accurately described as his trying to be a 70 guy while the base of the party wouldn’t let him. His problems seemed to boil down to the huge issue of the war, the perception of competence (or the lack thereof), and the more intangible issues of style.
There’s a lot of chatter about how Gibbs’s attack on the “professional Left” might be a trial balloon for an effort to get back closer to the 70 percent crowd. No doubt we’ll see more Clintonesque triangulation of that sort if/when the GOP takes back the House. But playing this card now strikes me as incomprehensibly dumb. Peeing on the lefty base of the party — including the white liberal blogosphere crowd, but also the Congressional Black Caucus — right now is just bizarre, given how much he needs liberal enthusiasm in November. That is, unless he’s decided that he’ll benefit from losing the House.
Of course, some of Obama’s actions can be explained by the fact that he’s an extremely ideological guy who wants to be the a left-wing Reagan. But Reagan’s political instincts, I don’t think, were as inscrutable as this. Anyway, I shall continue to ponder.