Confessions of a Hoosier Democrat

Blogging Indiana Politics and the 2008 Presidential Race.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Pragmatic politics of Indiana

Excellent read from the Philadelphia Enquirer...

Pragmatic politics of Indiana

Understanding Hoosiers may be key for national Democrats.

By Paul Nussbaum
Inquirer Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS - Hoosiers finally changed their clocks this month, after decades of year-round standard time. Now, will they change their voting habits?

The last time Indiana voted for a Democrat for president was 1964, in the Lyndon Johnson landslide. And the time before that was 1936, when Franklin D. Roosevelt carried every state but Maine and Vermont.

But as national Democrats search for enough red-state votes to win the White House in 2008, there may be lessons to learn from this deeply crimson Midwestern bastion of Republicanism.

After all, Indiana voters handed Democratic senator Evan Bayh 62 percent of their vote in 2004, even as they gave President Bush 60 percent.

Bayh, who is trying to become a viable presidential contender for 2008, says the political alchemy of turning red voters blue is something that Democrats can master.

"If the voters know you and trust you, they'll vote for you regardless of the party," Bayh said. "People in Indiana care about practical things... they want to know, 'How does this affect my life?' "

A Democrat who understands the pragmatic sensibilities of Indiana may be able to appeal to red-state voters elsewhere.

"You want to disavow labels and project centrist attitudes," said former congressman Lee Hamilton, a Democrat who represented a southern Indiana district for 34 years, then served as vice chairman of the 9/11 commission. "Hoosiers pride themselves on being people of moderation and common sense."

What plays well here: God, country, civility, and an economy of emotion and pocketbook. Hunting, fishing, and auto racing are almost as popular as basketball.

What doesn't play: taxes, daylight saving time, change, unseemly ambition, showiness.

With deep rural roots, even though most of its residents have left the farm behind, Indiana is suspicious of big-city flash. Even the booming Indianapolis area is more a big small city than metropolitan giant.

Indiana's conservatism - like that of much of the Midwest - is different from conservatism in the South.

"It's very dissimilar to a Southern red state," said Billy Linville, a national political consultant who grew up in Indiana, graduated from Ball State University in Muncie, and now lives in Atlanta.

"Southerners focus on the social hot-button issues, like abortion and gay marriage," Linville said. "But Indiana, like Iowa or Wisconsin or Ohio, is more interested in the traditional Republican issues - balancing the budget, integrity in government. It's a much more humble kind of state."

Gary Crawley, a political science professor at Ball State, said strident candidates of either party don't fare well here. "Hillary Clinton wouldn't... and if you have a Jesse Helms type, that wouldn't sell so well in Indiana."

For voters such as Bob Kessler, 37, of Bloomington, competence is more important than any single issue.

"I could possibly vote for a Democrat for president - if a Democrat could not be extreme to the left but more of a moderate," he said, taking a break from shopping in the College Mall. "But I don't know if a Democrat could get the party stamp and still be somewhere in the middle."

Ruth Masiongale, a hospital administrator in Marion, said she usually votes Democratic. Her husband, David, a self-employed contractor, always votes Republican. Well, not always.

"I voted for George Wallace," he said. "He was Democrat, wasn't he?"

She thinks a Democratic presidential candidate could win here, "somebody who could connect with all levels of society." No way, said her husband.

Sarah Wilson, publisher of the Rochester Sentinel, a 5,000-circulation daily newspaper in northern Indiana, said a Democrat's chances "would depend on who the Republican was." She said, "If Hillary Clinton was a Republican, a Democrat would have a chance."

William A. Blomquist, a political science professor at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis, said a moderate Democrat like Bayh or former Virginia governor Mark Warner could have a fighting chance of carrying Indiana, though he put the odds as "less than 50-50."

"The biggest danger the Democrats have is nominating somebody the Republicans could paint as some kind of a nut," Blomquist said. "Evan Bayh doesn't seem like a nut."

Bayh, 50, the son of former U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, served two terms as governor before winning his father's old Senate seat in 1998. He has succeeded in red-state Indiana by being tough on national security (he voted for the war in Iraq), tough on taxes (he didn't raise taxes during his eight years as governor) and successful at budget-balancing and job-creation.

He supports abortion rights but voted twice to ban so-called partial-birth abortions. And he has not strayed far from the middle on anything - the most oft-used adjective to describe him is "cautious."

"He's more comfortable taking the layup than the three-pointer," said Brian Howey, who publishes a political newsletter here. "He doesn't go out on a limb."

Howey said there "is a suspicion in the middle of the country about coastal liberals." He said, "Bayh and others from the middle of the country may have a better feeling for the gray areas... they're not as polarizing."

Bayh says it's vital for Democrats to seek common ground with Republicans and to be seen as strong on national security if they want to do well in Indiana or other red states.

"If people don't trust us with their lives, we don't even get to have a debate about the other issues. We have to demonstrate we're fiscally responsible... we need to prove we understand people work hard for their money.

"And there are some attitudinal things... too many national Democrats have a whiff of moral superiority about them. They come across as condescending. People will never vote for you if they think you're looking down your nose at them.

"And they have to show that they understand that people of faith are not monolithic. People of faith care about jobs, schools and health care... they're not just one-issue voters."

But the very things that make Democrats like Bayh palatable to red-state voters are likely to work against him with the more liberal Democratic faithful who vote in the party's primaries.

"He personifies the conservatism of the Midwest... and those qualities are the qualities that harm him in the Democratic race for president," Linville said.


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