Never mind the big-tent debate talk from both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney about how their respective politics will benefit all Americans. There’s a broader, ugly truth that as the last traces of purple fade from the electoral map, whoever wins will have little reason to take care of much of the country that rejected them.
At least since the dissolving of the “solid South” in the late ’50s and early ’60s, both parties have competed to extend their reach to virtually every region. As recently as 1996, Democrat Bill Clinton could compete in the South, winning several states in the mid-South and even in the heart of Dixie, including Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee. President Obama has about as much chance of winning these states this year as Abraham Lincoln did in 1860—giving him little reason to consider them in a second term.
In the Clinton years, powerful Democrats hailed from what we now call red states not only in the South but also in the Great Plains. South Dakota’s Tom Daschle served as both Senate majority and minority leader, and Louisiana’s John Breaux and North Dakota’s Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan were also players.
After his 2008 win, Obama dismissed Republican objections to his stimulus with a two-word rejoinder: “I won.” But it’s become clear since that neither party is willing to accept the other’s claim of a popular mandate for its agenda. And the log jam probably won’t be broken in November—especially if, as seems like the most likely outcome, Obama wins a second term while Republicans hold the House and edge closer to retaking the Senate.
The 2010 Republican landslide was the rare election that radicalized both parties. The new GOP House majority was attained by adding Tea Partiers who have pushed the House—and to a lesser extent the Senate—rightward. At the same time, Democrats lost many of their remaining members who’d held on in Republican-leaning districts, leaving the party with a smaller but more ideologically pure cast of true believers in office.
The right-leaning Blue Dog Democrats who once dominated the party’s ranks in the Plains and the Southeast are virtually extinct (as are Northeastern Republicans). In 2008 there were more than 50 Blue Dogs; the 2010 election sliced their ranks by half. After November there could be fewer than a dozen remaining. More and more Democrats, as Michael Barone has noted, come from overwhelmingly Democratic districts.
A reelected President Obama may well find himself with almost no Plains or Southern Democrats in Congress outside of a few House members in Dixie’s handful of overwhelmingly African-American districts. With little reason to make compromise or common cause with solid red-state Republicans, the administration could leave the denizens of these states to bitterly cling to their guns and religion, while the president expands on his first-term practice of bypassing Congress to legislate by decree on everything from environmental policy to immigration and the implementation of health-care reform.
Already, notes National Journal’s Ron Brownstein, Democrats hold congressional majorities in only three noncoastal states—Iowa, New Mexico, and Vermont. Much of the country inside the coasts may find themselves with little sympathy from or access to a president whose reelection they will have rejected, often by lopsided double-digit margins.
This could impact, in particular, energy policy since American fossil-fuel production is increasingly concentrated on the Plains, the rural Intermountain west and the Texas-Louisiana coast. Virtually all the mineral-rich economies excepting green-dominated California now lies well outside the electoral base of the president and his party. In a second Obama term, these states could well propel the national economy but could have little say on energy policies. Farming and ranching concerns will also have little political leverage with the White House. And traditional social concerns, most deeply felt in the Southern and more rural states, would lose all currency in a second-term administration whose worldview stems from that in big-city-dominated, deep-blue coastal states.
The dissenting states with large fossil-fuel-driven economies—West Virginia, Texas, Oklahoma and North Dakota—would likely go to court to battle regulatory steps that they see as threatening large parts of their economies. In the Great Plains, expect a reprise of the 1970s Sagebrush Rebellion that bedeviled Jimmy Carter, as states fight back against green-oriented Washington regulators cracking down on users of federal land and water.
Of course, if Romney finds a way to win, the coastal states would likely come in for some similarly rough treatment. The former Massachusetts governor has saved his harshest remarks for closed-door private events with big backers, dismissing 47 percent of the electorate as spongers at one such event, and telling backers at another that the Department of Education would become a “heck of a lot smaller” under his presidency and that the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which his father led during Richard Nixon’s first term in office, would face substantial cuts and “might not be around later.” The most devastating policy move he shared behind closed doors, though, was telling donors that he might eliminate the deductibility of state and local income and property taxes on federal returns—a move that would amount to a significant tax hike to many people living in high-tax and high-cost-of-living deep-blue states like New York and California.
But since those states are solidly Democratic, Romney has little to lose politically by punishing or alienating their citizens.
Deep-blue business interests could also lose their influence in a Romney administration, particularly if Republicans hold on to their strong majority in the House. The green-energy tax and subsidy farmers that have staked their future on the continued favor of the Democratic Party could find themselves cut off, and transit developers would also take a hit as the vast majority of train and bus riders come from a handful of dense and Democratic states (almost 40 percent of all national riders are in the New York area alone).
But with Romney, the blue states would at least have a kind of patrician insurance, much as Clinton brought Southern sensibilities to the Democrats. The former Massachusetts governor is tied by a cultural and financial umbilical cord to his old comrades in the financial world of New York and Boston, making him less of a threat to the coastal ruling structures than Obama is to those of the interior states or the South.
Whoever takes the White House, the nation’s best hope may be the regional mavericks who defy the trend toward geographical polarization. Democrats such as Sen. Jon Tester in Montana and Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota are running hard against the anti-Obama tide in their states. Should they win, the party’s need to protect their seats would help press the White House to modify the party’s drift to an increasingly leftish social and environmental agenda.
On the Republican side, the need to protect a middle-of-the-road politician like Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown would push other party members into moderating their more extreme positions on social issues and regulation. Republican victories by Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin and Linda McMahon in Connecticut might also help moderate the party by adding to the numbers of “blue states” in the GOP caucus.
For the federal union to work effectively, there has to be a sense that we are all, in different ways, linked to each other and share common interests that mean we’re willing to make compromises to live together. It’s time to bridge our partisan regional divides and avoid an ever more nasty, and divisive war between the states.