Is the Era of Democratic and Republican Voter Amnesia Over?

Is the era of Democratic and Republican voter amnesia over? Once upon a time voters could be counted on to seemingly forget some past statements or even votes if a survival-seeking politico’s commercial was strong enough or if the politician repeated a mantra at variance with previous mantras often enough. But could it be that Americans of both parties have finally had enough and intend to hold politicos accountable for who they claimed they were before they were threatened with tough races?

I’ve started to sense that this may be the year when we see this kind of shift — which could be both a positive and a negative depending on where the trend leads — both on the Democratic and Republican fronts. And MSNBC’s indispensible First Read has two items that confirm this belief. Two politicians trying to claw their way to victories seem to be having problems with the old 20th century political playbook.

First, Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter looks like he’s on the brink of being retired by Democrats who aren’t buying his conversion to the Democratic party because they’re not forgiving his past support of the Bush administration:

*** What’s the matter with Specter? How did Specter go from leading by double digits to now trailing in one tracking poll? We have one theory: Voters in Pennsylvania have longer memories than Washington does. While the famously unpredictable Specter has been a reliably Democratic vote since switching parties, many Democratic voters have spent decades voting against him. And so it took just one Sestak TV ad — linking Specter to Bush and Palin, and also highlighting that Specter switched parties to save his job — to drive home the message that Specter isn’t a Democrat. Terry Madonna, who directs Franklin and Marshall College’s Keystone Poll, tells First Read that Specter is being “triple whammied” by his GOP past, by Sestak’s message, and by a potentially anti-incumbent wave.

And now consider the situation of Arizona Senator John McCain, a politician who once epitomized the words “independent thinking…bipartisan…maverick” and even though he has been conservative was perceived by many to be a moderate or a more moderate thoughtful conservative.

The bottom line: the old McCain had been considered by many to be a breath of fresh air. Now he’s more like the fetid air in a cheap motel room previously rented by a cigar chain-smoker.

The new McCain has insisted he never considered himself a maverick — which given his past statements and campaigns would sort of be like the Pope saying he never considered himself a Catholic. He seems to be counting on the fact that voters in Arizona all have political Alzheimer’s Disease. But it may not be working quite the way he hoped. First Read again:

*** McCain’s “Danged” ad: Could this same theory we mentioned above — that voters have a longer memory than Washington does — and also the wave of anti-incumbency/Washington apply to John McCain, too? The Arizona senator has a tough new anti-illegal immigration TV ad (“Complete the Danged Fence”) that contradicts much of what he said on the issue from 2005-2007, like this comment from the GOP presidential primary debates (“We’re not going to erect barriers and fences”). Politicians reverse course all the time –remember when Obama opposed health-care mandates? — but McCain’s new TV ad can strike some as so antithetical to his political identity, nearly the equivalent of Ronald Reagan airing an ad praising the air-traffic controllers. [My boldface..JG] On the other hand, it appears McCain is trying to sell skeptical Arizona GOP voters that he’s gotten the message on immigration. In this ad, he almost seems to be telling them, “You convinced me.” The question is whether they will buy it. Should McCain have gone one more step in the ad and acknowledged his previous opposition to the fence?

But that hasn’t been this modern incarnation of McCain’s style. Today’s McCain casts off his political skins as readily as a bearded dragon reptile casts off its skin and when McCain is continually pressed he comes up with some lawyer-like explanation or the kind of patent spin reply that you hear all the time on the Sunday morning shows where the elite, mainstream media panelists smugly nod as if to say “Why this is how the game is played, and we know and you know it’s baloney, but isn’t this fun?”

It’s still a stretch to say the game is over for McCain who is still favored to win — but it’s clear that some Republicans don’t have political amnesia.

Consider the reaction of Allahpundit, a solid conservative blogger who writes in a post titled New McCain ad: You Cannot Be Serious on Hot Air:

I don’t know what to say, guys. I’m genuinely speechless. Pandering is one thing, shameless careerist pandering is something else, and then there’s John “Goddamned Fence” McCain marching along the border in a badass Navy baseball cap looking like he could choke out a coyote with his bare hands. And you know what? If he thought he’d get a few points’ bounce from it, I bet he’d do it too. How long before he’s spotted on the trail wearing a “Viva Los 1070? t-shirt?

PERSONAL FOOTNOTE: I was a huge McCain supporter in 2000. I voted for him in the California Republican primary (I have been a Democrat and a Republican and have been an independent since 2001.). I was one of the gullible people who bought his books, read everything I could about him, talked him up to friends and relatives. The only reason I didn’t work for his campaign was that my work and travel schedule did not permit it. Like me, the old McCain didn’t quite fit into a slot for either political party. The 2010 McCain easily fits into a slot: just turn on any conservative talk radio show and you’ll find that’s more or less McCain’s wavelength — except that some conservatives and members of the talk radio show political culture actually remember who he was before and don’t have amnesia.

Just as many of his former independent voters, moderate Republican and moderate Democrat supporters and admirers don’t.

If McCain and Specter both fail to make it to election there will be a possible trend here. In this age of You Tube, 7/24 news, and news sites that can easily cut and paste not just old statements but old videos, it’s increasingly hard for politicians of both parties who try to shed their political skin to do it without their old skin being seen by all — glaring in the light of day, right beside them.

UPDATE: Dick Polman notes another form of amnesia that seems to afflict some politicians:

The Republicans nevertheless keep complaining about Obama’s reliance on the criminal courts, and his refusal to treat these suspects as military combatants; in the words of former New York Gov. George Pataki, the policy that permits terror suspects to “lawyer up” has “weakened our security.”

But I continue to be fascinated by their willful amnesia, which allows them to forget the George W. Bush team’s heavy – and successful – reliance on the criminal courts.

Richard Reid, the failed ’02 shoe bomber, was Mirandized by the feds roughly five minutes after he was removed from the plane – and he wasn’t even an American citizen. Bush’s Republican allies didn’t utter a word of complaint about that. Reid was processed through the criminal courts. Again, not a word of complaint. Four years later, the Bush team prosecuted 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui in criminal court. Again, not a word of complaint. The Bush team also prosecuted ’01 “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla in civilian court. Again, not a word of complaint.

The GOP’s efforts to politicize the terror issue hinges heavily on cleansing the memory of anything that occurred prior to Obama’s Inauguration Day, but the great thing about our open society is that empirical information can’t be flushed down the Orwellian memory hole. To wit: The Bush administration, in one of its own budget documents, reported that, between 2001 and 2008, it had utilized the criminal courts to obtain 319 convictions in “terrorism or terrorist-related cases” – roughly 90 percent of all cases, with the average sentence running for 16 years; by contrast, Bush’s people prosecuted only three trials in military courts, and two of those defendants later went free. Yet, again, not a word of Republican complaint.

Quite the contrary, some Republicans (notably Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, and occasional GOP affiliate Joe Lieberman) now want to change the law and retroactively strip Americans of their citizenship – and their Miranda rights – if they are deemed only to be “affiliated” with bad people. A few Democrats have also voiced interest. But given how often the feds manage to extract useful information before they even read the terrorist suspects their rights (thanks to the “public safety exception” that the Supreme Court created in 1984); and given how well the criminal courts have historically handled the terrorism cases (as indicated by the aforementioned Bush stats), this new citizenship-stripping proposal appears to be attacking a nonexistent problem, much the way Bill O’Reilly used to whip up faux warnings about a liberal “war on Christmas.”

Read his post in full.

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