Politics and Bases

June 14th, 2009

We’ve become preoccupied, if not obsessed, with the concept of “political base.”  Supposedly, politicians are obligated to be highly aware of, take care of, and for heaven’s sake not offend their “base.”  This is more than just their supporters — fellow members of their political parties, independents who are on their side, even big-money contributors who attempt to buy their loyalty. 

This exaggerated sense of something out there called a “base” has gotten out of hand.  It causes candidates to make outlandish promises that they know they can never keep — assuming they have any sense of reality at all.  It also causes them to make conflicting statements and promises to various elements of their base, hoping to retain the support of all at whatever cost.

Peggy Noonan addressed this in The Case for Getting off Base, a recent column in The Wall Street Journal Opinion Journal.  She noted that the concept is now applied to business, public figures, and other sectors of American life.  She observed that it also has an important impact on the status of the fractured, virtually leaderless Republican Party — a description that applied to the Democrats not so long ago. 

From Noonan’s article:

In America almost everybody has a base, not only political parties. Businesses do, and public figures, and Web sites. We attempt to quantify to the nth degree everybody’s numbers, ratings, page views. These tell us how big a base is and, roughly, who is in it.

“The base” is a great if largely unspoken preoccupation in broad segments of our public life. In fact we have developed baseitis. Is this good?

What occasions the question is the USA Today story this week on a Gallup poll saying nearly half the country’s Republicans and Republican-leaners can’t come up with a name when asked who their party’s leader is. Of those who could think of a name, 10% said Rush Limbaugh, 10% Newt Gingrich, 9% Dick Cheney. Among Democrats, on the other hand, 83% could think of a leader of their party. Most of them said it was President Obama. This makes sense, yes?

The poll was a source of, or excuse for, interparty needling (the base likes that) and faux sympathy on cable news (their base likes that too.) What no one notes is the poll makes no sense, or rather makes so much sense that it’s not news.

For the Democrats, who want to build a long-term majority, the concept of base is what animates them and informs their policy choices.  They have to keep the extreme wing of their party, represented by the likes of MoveOn.org and the commenters on DailyKos, relatively happy.  While it’s true that these folks have nowhere to go other than the Democratic Party, they’re perfectly capable of sitting-out elections, or, worse, vociferously supporting candidates more to their liking who can divide the Party.

The Democrats also have to try to balance the demands of a variety of sub-bases, for want of a better term.  This inherently contradictory necessity has resulted in a number of broken promises recently — promise to close Guantanamo, with no idea of how to do it, resulting in opposition from their Party in Congress; promise no more earmarks, then enact bills full of pork; promise national health care, with no idea where the money will come from; attempt to take over large parts of the economy, without the necessary operational knowledge, financial controls, and legal support; promise large tax cuts, some of them to people who don’t pay taxes, while promoting vastly under-funded programs; and so on.

The media is an important factor in all this — they form part of the base on both sides, while at the same time defining what the base is and arrogating for themselves the role of referees.  They decide what politicians should promise, then decide when those promises are kept or broken, often without regard to facts.  For the Democrats, the media base is most of the mainstream media.  For the Republicans, a bit of the mainstream plus most of talk radio.  Both are also supported or damned in cyberspace, mostly on highly partisan blogs, some of which operate in an essentially data-free environment.

The plight of the Republican Party today, in terms of base-oriented politics, is serious.  As Noonan observes, Democrats, mainly through their media base, have succeeded in characterizing Republicans as “the party of angry white men.”  That’s false, of course, but it serves the purpose.  And, at a time when the Republicans, like any party out of power, is essentially leaderless, that charge is hard to defend against.

So who is the leader of the Republican Party — who is responsible for speaking to, and satisfying the competing demands of, their base?  Is it Rush Limbaugh, who has a powerful audience of 20,000,000 or so weekly listeners?  Is it Dick Cheney, who honestly and forthrightly addresses the issues of the day in terms the Republican base loves?  Or is it Newt Gingrich, the intelligent, professorial, former Speaker of the House?  Or maybe Mitt Romney, an accomplished business executive and successful political leader?  Or Sarah Palin, beloved of the base despite her obvious weakness?  No one knows. 

Someone will eventually emerge to lead the Republican Party.  By definition, that has to happen soon, if not in time to lead during the 2010 off-year elections, then soon thereafter to serve as the Party’s nominee for president in 2012.  That Republican leader will ascend by virtue of acceptance by the Republican, or conservative, base — whoever that really is. 

The one factor that won’t matter, although it should, is bipartisan unity in the country.  As with Barack Obama, lip service will be paid to bipartisanship, but whether through cynicism or naivete, it won’t mean anything in practice.  The respective bases don’t allow that.

As Noonan said,

Everyone is looking to the base, the sliver, their piece of the pie, their slice of the demo. You wonder sometimes as you watch: Who’s looking out for the country?       

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5 Responses to “Politics and Bases”

  1. Harvey |

    Right now the Republican Party leader really is Rush Limbaugh — he’s probably also it’s most knowledgeable spokesman on a broad variety of subjects.

    Personally I dislike the guy — he’s egocentric and he lies by omission on a daily basis — the ego is, of course, part of his “act” but the half-truths make him as dishonest as the vast majority of Senators and Congressmen in both parties.

  2. Dee |

    Bases don’t win elections, though. It’s a numbers game, isn’t it? You have to make your people happy, plus make some people in the middle happy, and get a few votes from the people far away from your camp in order to win elections.

    In any sense, the far, far right-wing of the Republicans are grossly obvious. These representatives always get media attention. They command attention. They are hard to miss. It’s not that MoveOn.org or the Daily Kos is without reach, but they communicate through e-mail and you can always delete those if you don’t care to read them. They just want your money and your signature on online petitions. I think Bernie Sanders and Ted Kennedy are about as left as you can get, but the fellows keep relatively quiet compared to their right counterparts.

  3. Lisa |

    It will be Mitt Romney. Rush is an entertainer.

  4. Tom |

    Lisa, I think you’re right. Romney is a very good leader and manager, and he has great experience in both business and executive political positions. There are those who think that being a Mormon would hurt him in a presidential campaign, but I really don’t think it would make that much difference. Having thought about it a bit, I’m not sure he wouldn’t have been a more effective opponent against Obama in the last election. I also think he would be a less polarizing figure than Obama is proving to be.

    Rush Limbaugh is definitely no more than a political entertainer. Most important, he knows that, and I think this business of him being the leader of the Republican Party is very amusing to him. I listen to him now and then, maybe on average a couple of times a month. In my opinion, he’s gone too far with his criticisms of Obama — and Sotomayor, for that matter — and may find himself becoming irrelevant.

  5. Lisa |

    Tom, We agree on this one. In my view what blew Romney’s chances in the primaries was his arrogant campaign. I realized later he is a more humble person. He’ll need to choose a campaign manager wisely in his next run. I think the people of the USA will crave a “leader” with a resume and a proven record of achievement in the areas of problem solving especially in the economic arena.

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