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Crosswired Politics

Why the parties are trading
places on some issues.


Posted Tuesday, May 30, 2000

        Fast enough for you? Savvy New York political reporters--I'm not one, but I recently played one on TV and met a few authentic specimens--seem to be highly skeptical of the recent Zogby poll showing that Rick Lazio, in a week, went from being 14 points behind Hillary Clinton to only 2 points behind.

        Now, it's true that Zogby's numbers are often more pro-Republican (and sometimes more accurate) than other pollsters' numbers, perhaps because he uses a tougher "likely voter" screen--though presumably the same bias existed in his earlier poll. (See this Slate piece for a discussion of this controversy.) And it's true that Lazio may simply be enjoying a temporary "honeymoon," as NPR's Mara Liasson has suggested.

        But isn't it also possible that Lazio's instant rise in stature is the latest manifestation of the "Faster Politics," phenomenon, in which voters learn to comfortably process the information (in this case, the dope on Lazio) streamed at them by an ever-faster news cycle? If so, the implication is that Lazio's gain is real and won't fade ... at least until the next plot twist, anyway. ...

        Trends-R-Us: Here's another political trend: Crosswired Politics. This occurs when politicians of one party become the most active--often the only--proponents of a cause traditionally associated with the other party.

        Consider the reaction of California's governor, Gray Davis, to the call by Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles for a moratorium on executions. "The death penalty system in California works," said the spokesman for Davis, promising that the governor would continue to enforce the death-penalty laws. (Davis has previously suggested that if any of his judicial appointees oppose the death penalty when they're on the bench, they should resign.)

        Davis is a Democrat. And when the New Hampshire legislature recently voted to repeal that state's death penalty, the measure was immediately vetoed--by another Democratic governor, Jeanne Shaheen.

        Meanwhile, the one governor who has actually suspended executions is a Republican--George Ryan of Illinois. He's been supported in this by Pat Robertson, the conservative evangelist. It's pretty clear that if those seeking a death penalty moratorium are looking for more prominent converts to their cause, their best bets are Republicans. This is backward, of course, by conventional partisan and ideological categories: Democrats are supposed to be more worried about fairness for the accused. Republicans are supposed to be tough on crime.

        There are quirky, issue-specific reasons for the weird death-penalty positioning--some conservatives want a moratorium to improve the capital-punishment system and make it stronger, for example. But the flip-flopping also makes perfect, self-interested political sense. It's not just that Democrats have been clobbered for opposing the death penalty for so long that they're terrified of the issue. It's that active support for the death penalty has become a crucial, talismanic asset for Democratic office-seekers, a way they prove to the voters that they've changed, they've learned their lesson. Republicans, meanwhile, have the obverse problem: They need to appear compassionate and reasonable if they're going to steal a bunch of otherwise Democratic votes. What better way than to show some flexibility on the death penalty?

        Crosswired Politics, then, is not just "me too-ism." Republicans are not going along with Democratic doubts about the death penalty--they're in the forefront of the movement, while Democrats are resisting. The parties are close to trading places.

        Crosswired Politics is also, I think, a bit more than simply the familiar only-Nixon-could-go-to-China phenomenon. True, Democrats were terrified of being attacked as soft on China, just as they're now scared of being perceived as soft on the death penalty. But you didn't see Nixon making a show of his opening to China, before the 1968 election, as a way to win votes and attention (the way Ryan is using his death-penalty apostasy). It was more like a stealthy stab in the back of Nixon's political base, undertaken for policy reasons, once he was safely in office. And you didn't see Democrats resisting the opening once it was a possibility--the way they now resist anti-death-penalty measures.

        What the crosswired posture of the death-penalty debate suggests is that as American politics becomes more centrist and less polarized, politicians may actually stab their traditional constituencies in the back--on some issues--in advance of an election for political reasons. It's not a way to govern once in office; it's a way to attain office, by telegraphing to the voters how centrist and non-polarized you are.

        What other issues might be crosswired? Kosovo, clearly: One way to see that conflict is that Clinton was determined not to go soft militarily--so it was left to Republicans to make political hay by mounting what was in essence an antiwar movement. Crime in general, probably. If Jonathan Alter and Mark Miller of Newsweek are going to make headway in their new campaign to guarantee all prison inmates access to the latest DNA tests, for example, it will probably be among Republican pols, not Democrats. (Indeed, a few days ago George W. Bush said he supports DNA testing in capital cases.)

        Drug policy is already largely crosswired. It's Republican Governor Gary Johnson of New Mexico who is making a national name for himself by opposing the war on drugs (something a Democratic governor would probably be too scared to do). In New York, Republican Governor George Pataki proposed softening the state's nasty Rockefeller-era drug laws, but Democrats in the state legislature wouldn't go along. Those who hope for liberalization are now counting on the Republican leader of the state senate.

        Social Security, on the other hand, probably won't be crosswired anytime soon. It's true that if Bush loses the election because of his semi-privatization talk, Republicans might be scared into unyielding, permanent support of FDR's pension system the same way Gray Davis is frozen in support of the death penalty. But it's unlikely that a Democrat would then actually try to get votes by pledging to fiddle with the system. Why? The bloc of Democratic voters whose concrete material interests would be hurt, and whose vote might turn on the issue, is still too large. Social Security is just too big an issue to use as a symbol of nonpartisan flexibility. (Though a stealthy stab-in-the-back benefit cut, Nixon/China style, is a possibility once in a Democrat takes office.) In contrast, there's no comparably large Republican constituency that will get furious over a death-penalty moratorium.

        To be ripe for crosswiring, then, an issue has to be salient but not crucial. Cuba--ending the embargo, anyway--is a crosswirable because while endorsing normalization would make a Republican look reasonable, it's not going to cost him an election outside of Florida. Abortion--at least at the presidential level--is still too important to crosswire.

        It goes without saying that all of the aforementioned crosswiring will happen much faster ...

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Is Robert Wright a Marxist?

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