David Brooks is smart and he makes a lot of good points. I respectfully disagree, however, with his editorial in today’s New York Times:
In short, he argues that Obama is mistaken in his strategic decision to “go partisan” for his 2012 re-election campaign. Brooks argues that becoming a “fighter” when you are the incumbent is a poor strategy because at this point in the American electoral cycle, most Independents are saying that they agree more with Republican policies – i.e. those currently out of power. Compromise and bipartisanship are the ways to win over the Independents and moderates, Brooks argues, and that should be Obama’s priority.
I disagree with Brooks because he’s basing his argument on a set of very common misperceptions about American politics. Political scientists have convincingly demonstrated that “Independents” are really not very independent. Most “lean” toward one party or another and those that do vote are just as partisan as the partisans. The pure Independents are less than 10% of the population and their vote is not usually the deciding factor in American elections. (See here, here, and here for a more detailed review of this phenomenon.)
Given that the vote of most Independents is really not up for grabs and that about 90% of partisans do not cross party lines when it comes time to vote, the key to winning American presidential elections is usually to mobilize those who are already likely inclined to vote for you. And that’s exactly what President Obama is trying to do.
That being said, I wish that Brooks was right and I certainly would prefer campaigns that focus on high-minded debate and compromise. As is often the case, however, reality does not conform to my ideals.