From the online "Wall Street Journal"

JANUARY 19, 2010

U.S. Shifted Party, Not Ideology


The Democratic party's problems, crystallized in the last-ditch scramble to save Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts Senate seat in a special election Tuesday, can be traced to a simple mistake: Many in the party misread voters' desire to switch parties in recent years as an ideological shift to the left.

In fact, there is little sign that Americans' ideological tendencies changed much at all, even as voters gave control of Congress to Democrats in 2006 and handed President Barack Obama and the rest of his party a massive victory in 2008. Ideologically, the country remained throughout this period what it was at the outset: a center to center-right nation.

Throughout this period of Democratic rise, America was instead a centrist nation that simply had become fed up with Republican rule, largely because of concerns about the GOP's competence and its tone deafness. Voters' response was to shift parties more than ideologies.

In retrospect, the problem for Democrats was that some in the party—particularly in the liberal wing that is dominant in the House of Representatives—seemed to read this shift away from Republicans as a shift to the left. That became apparent first in the early-2009 construct of an economic stimulus package, written initially in the House. It went heavy on the kinds of public-spending programs liberals favor, and light on the tax cuts and small-business incentives that even more moderate Democrats like.

That mix subsequently was adjusted somewhat by the Senate and White House, but an impression was set. It then was cemented in the health-care debate, where the preference for larger over smaller, and an insistence on the so-called public option, or government-run insurance alternative, suggested a continued belief that the country had shifted toward these priorities of the left.

Yet the absence of an ideological shift can be seen by looking inside Wall Street Journal/NBC News polling throughout the last four years, the period when political winds were shifting so dramatically. The one constant has been voters' ideological balance, which is virtually unchanged.

In January of 2006, for example, 24% of those surveyed called themselves liberal, 38% called themselves moderate and 34% conservative. Two years later, at the outset of the year that brought Mr. Obama to power and expanded Democratic control of Congress, the numbers were virtually identical: 24% liberal, 37% moderate, 35% conservative. And a year later, amid the euphoria of President Obama's inauguration, and much talk of change, the ideological remained unchanged: 23% liberal, 37% moderate and 35% conservative. Now, one year into the era of Obama, the numbers still are nearly the same.

The only discernible movement, in fact, is the tiniest shift to the right over the last year. The share of Americans calling themselves liberal has gone down a bit, to 21% this month.

When Journal/NBC pollsters asked independent voters last month whether they have become more conservative in the last couple of years, 48% said they have.

What did happen in recent years was a shift of preference toward the Democratic party. In mid-2003, for example, 38% of those surveyed called themselves Democrats. By the time Mr. Obama was elected in November 2008, that had risen to 45%.

That shift in preference toward the Democrats can be attributed to, among other things, the declining popularity of President George W. Bush; a combination of ethical problems, drift and over-spending by Republicans in Congress; war fatigue; and the genuine and widespread popularity of Mr. Obama.

All those were considerable advantages for Democrats, but they weren't the same as an ideological mandate for a shift to the left.

The reality is that Democrats were renting a lot of centrist voters in 2006 and 2008, but didn't really own them. And now Democrats seem to be losing their grip on some of those centrist, independent-minded voters.

To some extent, Mr. Obama is a victim of circumstances. He inherited problems that all but demanded big government action. Even the most rock-ribbed Republican business leaders saw a need for a big government stimulus package to rev up the economy at the beginning of the Obama term, for instance, and the financial-industry bailout money the Obama administration dispersed in early 2009 was requested and approved under President Bush.

Bailing out and then taking control of General Motors was a choice, but a tough one and not necessarily an ideological one. All those emergency moves inevitably widened a federal budget deficit, which has sunk into the public consciousness as a significant problem.

Still, the combination of those moves and a bruising health debate left an impression of an administration and a party moving to the left, while the country stayed in the center. If Democrats had managed to finish that health debate last summer, as the White House hoped, maybe the voters' impression would be different.

But that didn't happen, of course, and now the Massachusetts Senate race is seen as a referendum on health. It also may be the first test of whether Democrats can regain their hold on the political center, where much of their country has always been.

Write to Gerald F. Seib at ... 77746.html