I was astonished when I first saw this result from Public Policy Polling: “Americans are now pretty evenly divided about whether they would rather have Barack Obama or George W. Bush in the White House. 48% prefer Obama while 46% say they would rather have the old President back.”
Viewed from one angle, that’s a strange-looking phenomenon. It’s less than 18 months since Obama won the presidency by taking every opportunity to remind voters not only that he isn’t George Bush, but that he’s a lot less Bush-like in all crucial respects than John McCain. How can it be that Obama’s running neck-and-neck in a popularity contest with the guy that he won the presidency by disparaging? How could the voting public be that fickle?
My astonishment wore off pretty quickly, however, when I remembered that substantially the same thing happened to George Bush after the 2004 presidential election. Having won reelection with the highest percentage of the presidential vote in sixteen years, Bush thought that he’d “won political capital and [he] intend[ed] to spend it.” But his political checks started bouncing almost as soon as he started writing them. In the first year of his second term, Bush couldn’t even get his own party to support his principal domestic objective, the reform and partial privatization of Social Security, even though he’d campaigned hard on the issue throughout the election season. By the time his Iraq policy really started to unravel in early 2006, observers across the political spectrum were already talking about a failed presidency. Despite his election mandate, Bush’s power seemed to vary inversely with his ideological ambition. Now the same thing seems to be happening to Obama.
It's easy for those of us who have a large psychological investment in our ideological commitments to imagine that presidential elections are ideological contests, where the object is to convince the public that our side’s general ideas are right and the other side’s are wrong. When we find ourselves on the winning side, we like to celebrate by telling ourselves that the voting public finally figured out that we’ve been right all along. We imagine that we can turn to other issues because those on which (we’d like to think) the election turned are settled once and for all. That’s one possible explanation of why, for example, liberals are having so much trouble absorbing the fact that similarly large majorities of voters could both elect Obama and disapprove of ObamaCare in the space of 18 months.
Yet, when you think about it, that’s an irrational reaction. Not everyone cares enough about politics to bother having an ideology. Those who do aren’t likely to have their minds systematically changed by a single election. Given the fact that non-ideologues tend to be less engaged by politics, it’s hardly surprising that they can change their political minds pretty quickly. Our surprise at drastic shifts in public opinion, I submit, is generated in part by the unreasonable presumption that the very same people are ideologically flexible enough to have their political worldview changed by a single election, but too ideologically rigid to change it again after the election’s over.
If ideology affects elections in the short-term, it can’t be by making more people into ideologues or converting people from one ideology to another. Public Policy Polling throws some light on how ideology affects elections by noting that the surge in Bush’s popularity relative to Obama's is largely a function of Bush's recovering the same level of support from the Republican base that Obama gets from the Democratic base (my emphasis):
This suggests that, all other things being equal, ideological commitment affects elections to the extent that one or both candidates excite enthusiasm in ideological comrades and anxiety in ideological opponents. Think of the general ideological argument between conservatives and liberals as if it were a contest to move the ball on a football field in a game of “sudden death.” Each side steps onto the field with a pretty firm idea of how they’d like to run the country. One side moves the ball toward the other side’s end zone to the extent it succeeds in institutionalizing its view of how the political economy should work. Scoring a touchdown would mean that the game is over because the side doing the scoring has succeeded in remaking the whole political economy to its ideological specifications.“Bush had atrocious approval ratings for his final few years in office, particularly because he lost a lot of support from Republicans and conservative leaning independents. Those folks may not have liked him but they now say they would rather have him back than Obama. 87% of GOP voters now say they would prefer Bush, a number a good deal higher than Bush's approval rating within his party toward the tail end of his Presidency. Democrats predictably go for Obama by an 86/10 margin, and independents lean toward him as well by a 49/37 spread.”
Now make the psychologically plausible assumption that yards on the field have a diminishing marginal significance to each contestant the farther they are from that contestant’s end zone. That means that they lose more from the other side’s pushing the ball a yard further into their territory than they gain from pushing the ball a yard farther into the other side’s territory. On that assumption, for example, conservatives cared more about keeping the public option out of ObamaCare than liberals cared about keeping it in the final legislation.
If this is approximately right, all other things being equal, ideologues on each side will tend to expend more political energy, and exert more political influence, the closer the ball moves toward their end zone. That would help explain why George Bush’s electoral mandate evaporated once he got around to the more ideologically contentious aspects of the “Ownership Society” like the partial privatization of Social Security. And it would explain why Obama’s making good on his campaign promise to reform the health care system is killing him politically.
And note this counter-intuitive implication. We normally think the noticeable increase in ideological polarization and intensity among our political elites makes our politics more volatile than it once was. But if the dynamic I’ve been describing is real that should have, on balance, a moderating effect on our politics. On this view, the ideological ball should remain near the middle of the field because ideologues are better at playing defense than they are at playing offense.