Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Dad's Independent Wisdom

“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he'd learned in seven years.” - Mark Twain

I found a coffee mug with this quote a while back on one of my weekend crawls around resale stores, and knew I had to get it for my dad. (Since my sons are tweens, maybe I should have kept it.)

I spent the long weekend at my parents' home in Wisconsin for an early Thanksgiving. Trips home are my escape from the political bubble of the People's Republic of Johnson County, my semi-annual reality check. Mom and Dad are my barometer of pure independents. And not apathetic independents, either. They're the journalist's idealized independents who "study the candidates" and often vote split tickets. And they're a shrinking part of the electorate.

A generation ago, maybe a quarter of the electorate was made up of swing voters. I'm basing that on low water marks for the major parties: Goldwater `64 and McGovern `72. Now that swing vote is probably 10 percent or less, so an LBJ or Reagan size landslide is no longer possible. Obama and his GOP opponent will each start next fall with about 45 percent of the national popular vote locked in.

Now, fair disclosure: my parents are retired teachers. Retired Wisconsin teachers. Gov. Scott Walker's anti-government employee agenda has steered Mom and Dad toward Democrats in general. They live in one of the two Senate districts that changed hands in the August recall elections. Before that, their vacant state House seat also flipped from R to D in a special election brought about when the incumbent resigned to take a key job in the Walker administration. (A dude I went to high school with, who is as annoying now as he was then.)

I warned my folks to expect nonstop phone calls stating today as the recall effort against Walker begins collecting signatures. But -- this is where exposition ends and substance finally begins -- they may not sign.

Dad argues: Democrats haven't got a candidate who can beat Walker and is willing to run. (Their first choice is former senator Russ Feingold, who they always supported.) "If they're not going to win anyway," says Dad, "why spend all that time and money?"

After watching the Badgers clobber the Gophers, we stumbled onto the first part of the Republican debate, which prompted another significant look at the independent mindset. It's the flipside of the Walker recall: lack of a candidate.

Dad: If the Republicans don't even like their own candidates and can't decide which one to pick, how do they expect to persuade someone like me?

Me: OK, Dad, let me ask you this. Last time, when the Democrats took forever to decide between Barack and Hillary, what did you think?

Dad: I think you liked both of them, and I think this year the Republicans don't like any of them.
So take heed, Republicans. Your lack of enthusiasm is being noticed and isn't playing well. My survey is highly unscientific and probably biased, but it's a different set of biases than my own, and the older I get, the smarter my parents seem.

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