Columns » Max Brantley

Swing and a miss

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The Washington Post joined recently with the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University for a study of independent voters, the bloc generally credited with giving Democrats the Congress in 2006.

The results, published last Sunday, were encouraging. Because of dissatisfaction with President George Bush and his war in Iraq, the independents lean heavily toward Democrats. They are, however, frustrated with partisan combat.

I found it interesting how the survey defined independents. They are not a centrist monolith. They span a spectrum from conservative to liberal.

Conventional Democratic political wisdom in Arkansas decrees that you reach swing voters with a pro-God, pro-gun, anti-gay agenda. The Post survey indicates independents have other things on their mind. This is important information, because independents are growing in number, currently somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of the electorate.

The Post said that independents are more secular than the overall electorate. Forty percent of them want religion to have less influence on politics and public life. They dislike George Bush, with 75 percent dissatisfied with his leadership and almost half calling him the worst modern president.

War is their runaway top concern. Asked to list the issue most important to them, only 1 percent mentioned taxes. Only 1 percent listed moral issues.

In a ranking of issues seen as “extremely important,” the war led, mentioned by 70 percent of independents. The other extremely important issues were, in order: health care, corruption in government, the economy, the U.S. campaign against terrorism, immigration, the deficit, global warming and, finally, with only tiny percentages of mentions — taxes and moral issues.

This report was delivered the same week that most Republican presidential candidates appeared before a forum in Iowa sponsored in part by the Iowa Christian Alliance. Conservative voters supposedly dominate the Iowa Republican caucuses, so candidates pander to them. This session was no different. The candidates fell in lockstep with the issues perceived as extremely important to this group.

The war wasn’t mentioned in the reports of the meeting that I read. Nor was health care.

Instead, for example, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee solemnly pledged never to raise taxes as president. And he said he would not sign a bill increasing spending — presumably no matter what emergency might exist. This would be a marked departure from Huckabee’s more responsible tenure as governor. He recognized then that such pledges could prove rash and unrealistic. He raised taxes and increased spending dramatically for highways, health care and education.

Huckabee also touted his Fair Tax plan in Iowa. If this enormous value-added tax is indeed revenue neutral, as he promises — and it’s a big if — it’s almost certain to mean effective tax increases for millions of working Americans to offset the tax-cut windfalls that the wealthiest will realize.

Huckabee and the other candidates also dipped deeply into the bag of moral issues. He said it was time to amend the constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. He indicated he looked with disfavor on certain types of stem cell research.

The war? That may be the defining issue for independents. But Huckabee and most other Republicans would rather not take up that ticklish subject. Good. Let them keep talking about taxes and gay marriage. It won’t get them any Democratic votes and, if the Post survey is any indication, it could cost them independents and the election.

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