As lawmakers begin their August recess, the airwaves back home are filled with ads arguing all sides of the healthcare debate. But one commercial stands out. Two liberal interest groups are attacking Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska as a tool of the insurance industry.
Nelson is a Democrat, but in the eyes of the liberals, he’s also a heretic. He’s committed the sin of moderation by opposing a “public option” to compete with private sellers in the insurance marketplace.
The folks who finance these two pressure groups – Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee – should ask for their money back. It’s being spent, to use a current Washington buzzword, “stupidly.”
Nelson has not won four statewide elections by misreading Nebraska voters. A card-carrying moderate, he’s the only kind of Democrat with a chance of winning that deep-red state (John McCain thrashed Barack Obama there, 57 percent to 42 percent). In fact, getting attacked by out-of-state liberals is a badge of honor. The TV ads are a total waste of money – except to reinforce Nelson’s down-home credentials.
Nelson is a “majority maker,” a favorite phrase of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Without centrists like him, the Democrats could not control either house of Congress. And that hard truth leaves them with a stark choice on healthcare legislation.
If the leadership advocates a bill that tilts too far to the left, the majority makers will not support it. If the leaders strong-arm the centrists into voting for a liberal measure, they endanger their domination of Congress.
This political math infuriates and frustrates liberals, but there’s no getting around it. Just because there is a Democratic majority in Congress does not mean there is a liberal majority in the country – far from it. America remains a moderate country with a slight tilt to the right. Obama and his allies cannot govern from the left and succeed.
The numbers are inescapable. In the last election, only 22 percent called themselves liberals and Obama’s margin of victory came from the center, not the left. A new Gallup Poll reveals the same typography: 40 percent of Americans chose the conservative label, 35 percent moderate, 21 percent liberal.
Slice the numbers another way. Among political independents, not aligned with either party, almost half are moderate, one of three is conservative, only one of five is liberal. That’s why Obama’s healthcare plans are sputtering. In the latest ABC/Washington Post survey, his negative rating among independents on the issue jumped from 30 percent to 49 percent in just three months.
The electorate is reflected on Capitol Hill. Nelson is not alone. Democrats control the Senate because he has been joined by other majority makers from red states: Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Jon Tester of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska. None can vote for a high-cost, high-tax, big-government bill and survive.
The same is true in the House. Fifty-two Democrats have joined the “Blue Dogs,” fiscal conservatives from Georgia and Alabama, Kansas and Idaho, upstate New York and central Pennsylvania. Many were recruited to run because they had the credentials to win marginal districts, and now the leadership has to live with them.
Balancing these moderates against the big-city liberals who dominate the Democratic caucus is “the political high-wire act of the new century,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen told the Washington Post. But there’s a difference: The liberals are in safe seats; the majority makers are not. That’s why attention must be paid.
John Feehery, once an aide to House Republicans and now a political commentator, has some good advice for the Democratic leadership: “If there were a legislator’s bible, one proverb in it would be, ‘Blessed are the majority makers, for they give us the keys to the kingdom.’”
Republicans lost their advantage, he says, because “they started treating the majority makers with contempt.” Moderates from suburban swing districts were forced to make unpopular votes on sizzling social issues to satisfy the conservative ideologues in their party base. In their weakened state, these majority makers could not survive an unpopular war and a slumping economy.
Feehery’s lesson is clear: Treat majority makers with “great respect,” tend to their needs, and “find compromises” with them when you can. Trashing Ben Nelson is the last thing Democrats should be doing – unless they want the Republicans to return to power.
Cokie Roberts’ latest book is “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation” (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2009, Steven and Cokie Roberts.
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