Big changes often take place before we are aware of them. This may be the case with the rapid change in political mood over the past several months. I'd put it this way: Pragmatism and moderation appear to be gaining, ideology and partisanship are waning.
A recent Pew Research Center survey found that, since the 2008 elections, the number of voters describing themselves as "independent" had risen from 30 to 39 percent. Voters identifying themselves as "Democrats" had fallen from 39 to 33 percent, as "Republicans" from 26 to 22 percent. Only 11 percent identified themselves as "liberal Democrats," 15 percent as "conservative Republicans."
The preoccupations of these independent voters were, not surprisingly, the uncertainties presented by the economic instability, combined with a skepticism about policies adopted to respond to it.
Yet both President Barack Obama and opposition Republicans have been conducting themselves thus far as if unaware of this shift. Obama has proposed ambitious new public-spending initiatives, and undertaken unprecedented federal intrusions into private-sector decisionmaking, as if supported by a strong public mandate for such policies. Congressional Republicans have stressed fiscal discipline. But Republicans' most vocal and visible national spokespersons have focused on divisive cultural and social issues. This at a time when moderate voters — always a majority in the electorate — are understandably preoccupied with bread-and-butter tax and spending matters.
It is too soon to know if this shift will deepen in advance of 2010 federal, state, and local elections. We saw a possible portent this past Tuesday when former Democratic national chair and 2008 Hillary Clinton campaign chair Terry McAuliffe, a free-wheeling capital beltway type, was decisively rejected in the Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary. McAuliffe, who spent more than $7 million on his primary campaign, got about 25 percent of the primary vote, as did another Democratic candidate. The winner, with more than 50 percent of the vote, was state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, a longtime state legislator known as a hard-working moderate. He spent half as much as McAuliffe. Deeds, bearing one of those central-casting southern names, will be favored in the fall election over a Republican nominee closely tied to evangelist Pat Robertson. Moderation and pragmatism appear to be prevailing.
There are been no recent international polls comparable to the Pew Study, but in Europe voters sent a message recently in European Parliament elections. In both the United Kingdom and Germany candidates identified with the Left were rejected in favor of those more identified with moderate or conservative policies. (Special circumstances apply in Europe, it must be added. European Union members, with great difficulty, went through a long period of fiscal restraint and monetary discipline in order to meet criteria for EU and Euroland membership. Voters were rejecting candidates and policies they saw as moving in the other direction.)
And what about locally? Will this same trend appear? If so, Seattle mayoral candidate Joe Mallahan and King County Executive candidate Ross Hunter might benefit. Both are impatient, results-oriented managers promising to scrub the city and county budgets of waste and overstaffing. They are a threat to the established order but in a wholly moderate context. Their success or failure, here, will depend in large part on primary voter turnout in August. A heavy turnout would favor them. A light turnout, dominated by public employees, teachers' unions, and business groups with a self-interested agenda, would work against them. Even a strong showing by Mallahan or Hunter would tend to validate the general trend.
It's long been said that the ideology of Americans is pragmatism. It also is the ideology of most successful politicians, including President Obama and others at national level. As they catch on to what is happening, you can be sure they quickly will rush to join and then lead the parade.