"I'm an independent, and I disagree with 60% to 80% of what Obama is for," a 40-something investment manager told me a few days before the election. "But I'm voting for him."
Why? The widespread incompetence of the Bush administration, along with the poisonously partisan atmosphere in Washington it helped foment, drove him into the Democratic column. This time.
Think what you will about Barack Obama's victory last week--whether it's a mandate or not and, if so, a mandate for what?--many Americans will never find a comfortable home in the Democratic party. Or, for that matter, among Republicans.
Independents are a growing constituency and, with less than a third of registered voters considering themselves Republicans, the Grand Old Party needs them more than ever. The conservative base is no longer enough to win national elections. As they ponder their next two years in the wilderness while Democrats control both the White House and Capitol Hill, Republicans must figure out a way to attract independents.
So it's a mystery why some GOP lawmakers and strategists seem to be considering the copious use of a weapon that will repel independents: obstructionism. With Democrats a few seats shy of winning 60 Senate seats, Republicans intent on blocking a liberal agenda are already raising the specter of filibustering, early and often, in an attempt to make life difficult for their opponents.
That would be a gigantic mistake--not only for the country but also for the Republican Party. The political bickering of the last decade has taken a huge toll on the body politic, repulsing people of all ideological persuasions. Dozens of polls show it.
When in 2005, for example, pollsters asked people to choose between describing most members of Congress as "statesmen" or "petty politicians," 63% chose petty politicians (and only 17% said statesmen). At the time, some 50% to 55% of Americans disapproved of the job Congress was doing. Three years later, that group is about 75%. Even so, more than 60% said they want Congress to take the lead in setting policies, not George Bush, who along with his party has been blamed for the stagnation in Washington.
Independents, unencumbered by party loyalty, are likely to be among the most disgusted with partisanship. It's a good bet that President-elect Obama's soaring rhetoric on hope and unity--on the United States of America--resonated with them. Blocking Obama's attempts to address the financial crisis, health care concerns, energy-supply issues, global warming and other pressing problems is not going to win votes in the next election.
With their own profligate spending over the past eight years, mainly on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and now on the financial bailout, Republicans have lost any ability to use fiscal responsibility as an argument against Democratic spending measures--especially given current economic conditions. Besides, as election-night celebrations demonstrated, Obama has enormous good will throughout the country that won't be easily undermined.
What would trip up the Democrats are the expectations they've raised and the hubris that may trap them. It will be hard for Obama to propose half-measures, given the enormity of the problems the country faces. Yet if the administration enacts sweeping legislative changes, promulgates policies that do not work and creates unintended consequences that are worse, Democrats will lose support among the independents they need to keep their hold on Congress in 2010. (Albeit that's a lower number.)
Republicans need to bide their time for the next two years. That's not to say they should play dead. They should, of course, argue forcefully always, vote no when necessary and compromise when possible. But they should deprive the Democrats of any opportunity to blame them for stymieing actions to fix the nation's problems. America thrives most when both parties are vibrant: Republicans should spend their real efforts now coming up with compelling new ideas, as they did in the '70s and '80s, and winning back trust that they can manage the economy better than the other guys.
It's up to voters, after all, to punish those who do not govern well. If the Obama administration does rise to the occasion, no amount of obstructionism by the GOP would make him unpopular. Republicans would simply be deeper in the ditch they now find themselves in--especially with the independents upon whom they must now depend.