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Bellingham voters fear polarization above outcomes

Credit: Anita Hart

There are just too many variables at work to make a hard prediction about whether President Obama or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will be the winner in Tuesday's presidential election, whether Attorney General Rob McKenna or former Rep. Jay Inslee will be our next governor, or whether Democrats or Republicans will make important gains in the Congress or Washington Legislature.

A truly close election.
Washington was once a state known for so-called split ticket voting; that is, individual voters might vote on the same ballot for candidates for various offices of different parties. For instance, we were known to vote for a Democrat for president and  Republican for governor, or vice versa. Now, that doesn't happen as frequently, although this year could be an exception if  McKenna is elected governor. The odds strongly favor Obama carrying Washington at the top of the ticket.
It was a given nationally that moderate and independent voters, at the middle of the spectrum, would be the ultimate deciders in presidential elections. Yet only in recent days have the two parties begun to reach specifically to these difference-making voters in their commercials and campaign appearances.
This Tuesday I had a chance to talk with Bellingham voters about their thoughts on the upcoming election during a question-and-answer session following my speech at a meeting of the Bellingham Bay Rotary Club, a community-service club which has a membership across gender, age, partisan, professional and other lines. I found their questions surprising, since they went more to issues facing the country and state than to winners and losers in next Tuesday's elections.  

2000 Replay?:  My principal fear about the national election is that it could result in a replay of the 2000 Bush-Gore outcome, which led to following days of angry polarization in the country. I am hoping that either candidate wins cleanly both the electoral and popular votes so that we can get back promptly to unresolved issues facing the country. I also am hoping that, here in Washington, we'll avoid a replay of the Gregoire/Rossi multiple recounts and get a clear winner. It's hard to govern when a large minority of voters questions your legitimacy.
Political polarization: Our politics has been, in varying degree, shrill and divisive for nearly two decades. Obama pledged in 2008 to break the cycle and govern across partisan and ideological lines. Once in office, though, he chose to frame and press his program on a mainly one-party basis. The 2010 congressional elections removed 63 largely moderate Democrats from the House of Representatives and gave control of the House to Republicans. The 63 were replaced, for the most part, by Tea Party and other hard-line Republicans.  There are now few moderates left in the House in either party.  
Looking at individual House races throughout the country, I find it hard to foresee an outcome other than continuing GOP control of the House. The Senate appears likely to stay in Democratic hands, but, even so, Democrats will have nowhere near the 60 votes needed to end debate and force a vote on key issues. Whether Obama is reelected or Romney comes to office, we are in for more divided governance. Here at home, either McKenna or Inslee will face ideological divisions in the Legislature — even though Democrats may narrowly control both houses — which could keep us in gridlock.
The nature of the electorate:  Despite obvious demographic shifts, the fundamental character and values of the American people and of our state have not changed a great deal over the years. Right now, the country, according to Gallup, is about equally divided among Democrats, Republicans and Independents. The latter, by the way, can range from suburban post-grad Chablis drinkers to poorly informed slackers, who vote only sporadically. Here in Washington, and certainly in Bellingham, Democrats are more numerous and the overall electorate more hospitable to policies such as gay marriage or death with dignity.
Even though voters identify themselves by party, most will tell you that their families, occupations, faiths or principal hobbies outweigh their political affiliations in importance. When you woke this morning, were your first thoughts of whether McKenna or Inslee had gained in the polls overnight or whether the eastern-seaboard storms would hurt some candidate's election chances? No, you probably thought about getting your kids to school, about the pile of bills on the kitchen counter and the illness of your aunt down the street — all matters connected to public issues, but not classified that way in your consciousness.
The polarization and passion about issues, of course, comes from the left and right flanks of the two major parties. These are people who truly do wake up wondering about overnight polling data. Most of you are not angry at your neighbors simply because they disagree with you on one or more political issues. Within political process though, there are those who live and die on the basis of a single, emotional issue — often a social rather than a bread-and-butter economic issue or concern about international affairs (unless a controversial war is taking place). They sometimes seem to live for their grievances against The Other. Watching the TV commercials in state races, we see Tea Partiers, Gay Rights groups, the BIAW, teacher and government-employee unions and pro-choice and anti-abortion groups vilified. These are meant to energize voters who feel real animosity toward The Other.
There is a class consciousness, also, which office seekers and campaigns inject into the process, but which most ordinary voters do not feel. Beware when a candidate or campaign begins talking about 'the rich' or claims to be most concerned for 'the middle class.' You know that a cynical, pandering message is about to follow. Few candidates or campaigns, even in our true-blue state, talk about "the poor." That is because the poor often don't vote; some even see them as tax eaters. It's easier for campaigns to leave them out of their messages. I've participated in quite liberal national campaigns in which survey data told us to beware of class-consciousness. Most Americans are uncomfortable with it. Most still hold to the American dream that anyone should rise to the limit of his or her talent — and have the chance to become rich, if that is what he or she wants. One way to think about it: Always a floor for the vulnerable; never a ceiling for the enterprising and ambitious.

How to remove the anger and toxin that most ordinary citizens do not feel, but which true believers inject into the process: The most obvious answer, of course, is to reject candidates who are calculated polarizers. But you obviously cannot overturn an entire Congress or state legislature accordingly. It is a case-by-case, constituency-by-constituency matter. There is one thing you should know though: The single greatest motivating factor for most elected officials and candidates is fear — fear that their voters or contributors will become disaffected and reject them. Ordinary voters need to signal to the electeds and candidates that their fear is well founded. If you don't want anger and polarization, frighten candidates who deal in them. Let them know you value civility and rationality and will dump those who do not show it. 
What we face in January:  Setting aside international issues for the moment, there are some big issues we face in January. Our governor and Legislature worked their way through a short-term debt crisis by doing a lot of financial fudging and avoiding truly tough decisions, but long-term red ink remains. A big part of the budget hole could be filled by repealing the huge number of subsidies and tax breaks extended to favored Washington state businesses and sectors. All told, they amount at state and local level to three times the size of the biennial budget. Long-term teacher and government-employee pension benefits also cannot be sustained according to the present formulae. Acting on these issues will take guts by leaders of both political parties; neither party can get them done alone. 
In Washington, D.C, Obama and the present lame-duck Congress must deal with the looming Dec. 31 'fiscal cliff,' lest automatic tax increases and spending cuts kick in and trigger a 2013 recession. Chances are, they'll find a way to push those decisions onto the next Congress in 2013. But they must be dealt with then — along with a whole host of decisions in defense, social security and medicare, discretionary spending and Obamacare which are important to our longer-term well being. 
I don't know about you, but I've been receiving by e-mail, phone, regular mail and other means dozens of party and candidate messages over the past several weeks. The vast majority have included sharp attacks on and negative characterizations of opposition candidates. I am a Democrat, who votes in all elections and who has given money to Democratic candidates, so I am particularly targeted by such appeals. If you are a Republican, you've likely gotten similar messages, and if you are an independent registered to vote, you've gotten them from both sides — but probably with a slightly less partisan message. 
Are voters truly as polarized as politicians seem to think they are? I don't think so. I still think most Americans and citizens of our state see themselves as in it together and uncomfortable with messages and tactics which would drive them apart. I hope I am not wrong. Judging by the sentiment among the people in Bellingham I spoke with this week, I am not wrong.

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