Hendricks County Flyer, Avon, IN

September 17, 2012

The national house is divided

By Brian Howey
CNHI

— I've heard this story over and over again from relatives, friends, even the Sears salesman here who sold me a refrigerator and I've experienced it myself: Because of the polarized nature of today's politics, old friendships are ending.

Friends can no longer talk politics among those who have a difference of opinion. There is the point, counterpoint, and over 10 or 15 minutes it gets emotional, then heated. Often, one side shuts down: "I'm not going to talk about politics anymore."

People are getting angry when a Tea Party friend sends them birther or Sheriff Joe videos via e-mail. The conservatives cannot fathom how anyone could be so stupid to support Barack Obama.

I watched the Democratic National Convention Tuesday night on Fox News. Somewhere between Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity I moved into another room to catch a Sox/Twins score, and the muffled rancor permeated through as if the Bickersons were next door.

It was a national quarrel.

We are a divided, sneering nation. Tolerance has been replaced by suspicion.

The Real Clear Politics composite on the presidential race stood at 46.8 percent for both Mitt Romney and President Obama on Wednesday, an absolute dead heat. The RCP Congressional generic stood at 44.2 percent for both Republicans and Democrats. I can't ever remember a time when a presidential race and the Congressional generic were absolutely tied at the same time. President Obama's job approval stood at 47.3 percent approve and 48.8 disapprove. The RCP Electoral College map stood at 221 for Obama and 191 for Romney with Indiana in the "leans Romney" lighter shade of red.

Romney isn't faring much better. Gallup reported he received no polling "bounce" after the convention. A Pew Research poll revealed 20 percent found Clint Eastwood's weird interview with an empty chair the "highlight" of the convention, compared to 17 percent who said Romney's acceptance speech was.

Look further into the battleground states and its pure splitsville: In Ohio, Obama is up 46.2 to 45.5 percent; in Virginia Obama leads 47.3 to 46.7; in Wisconsin the president is up 48.2 to 46.8; in Florida Obama has a 47.3 to 46.7 lead. Romney leads in North Carolina 47.3 to 45.7 and in Iowa, Obama is up 45 to 44.8, if you call that up.

The RCP national right/wrong track stood at 31.4 percent to 63. Congressional approval stood at 12 percent approve and 82 percent disapprove in an August NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

In the year of the rubber match, this has been the summer of discontent. I hear this a lot from smart people: the propaganda is so thick from both sides they don't know where to find the truth.

When Obama enthralled the nation in 2008, he campaigned on the simplistic notions of "hope and change." The nation had been through seven years of war, with the amount we spent in Iraq and Afghanistan very close to the trillion dollar budget deficit. There had been President George W. Bush's dramatic Medicare entitlement expansion, tax cuts that were also unpaid for, and a sense that this middle-aged empire was beginning to lose its way.

In 2010, Americans gyrated, voting like the flapping screen door in a squall line, returning the U.S. House to GOP control, and almost the U.S. Senate, had it not been for the failed, kooky candidacies of Sharron Angle, Joe Miller, and Christine O'Donnell.

The masses were dividing themselves, watching only Fox News or MSNBC, depending on which one reinforced your political posture.

In their book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart by Bill Bishop with Robert G. Cushing, they compared the presidential elections of 1976 and 2004. In 1976, barely 26 percent of us lived in counties that went in a landslide for one presidential candidate or another. In 1992, nearly 38 percent of us lived in a "landslide county." By 2004, nearly 50 percent did.

In January 2009, surveying the colossal mess left behind by the Bush/Cheney presidency, I predicted that Barack Obama would likely not be re-elected. He acknowledged as much on the "Today Show," saying that if his stimulus package failed, "I'll be a one-term president."

Unlike the months following President Reagan's election, when dozens of Democrats joined Republicans in voting for the 1981 tax cuts, President Obama and the two Congresses that followed became equally polarized. Nothing big passed without straight, party line votes. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell neatly summed up the priority: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."

It should have been: "let's lay down the swords for a year and get Americans back to work." Tragically, it didn't happen.

Here in Indiana, Republican Senate nominee Richard Mourdock articulated the polarization by saying, "I get criticized for it but I often say it's bipartisanship that's taken us to the brink of bankruptcy and we don't need bipartisanship."

The two sides of the ship of state are rowing against each other, conversing about it only with those with which they agree. As the economy stagnates, neither of the dug-in sides will get things moving.

This is, sadly, the house divided ...

- Brian Howey publishes online at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol.