BROWNSVILLE – This Pennsylvania town was once the western terminus of our first National Road – hard to imagine, given the nation’s breadth today.
Located on a wide bend of the Monongahela River, it sits in a vast rural county named for an American Revolutionary War hero, the Marquis de Lafayette, one of 17 such honorary counties across the country.
Present for the French and Indian War and the Whiskey Rebellion, Brownsville has a well-traveled cast-iron bridge built when the area still was part of the Virginia commonwealth.
The river town has seen better days, and seen worse, too. Yet, like other Rust Belt communities, it has become accustomed to adjusting to swings in fortunes.
Mayor Lester Ward says most of what happens in Washington, D.C., especially important things like job-creation programs or stimulus projects, take a long time to “get down to the level of Brownsville.”
“The Democrats ran on helping the middle class. I guess it takes a few years to get to us,” says Ward, who ran and won as an independent five months ago.
“Elections,” as one very wise Democratic strategist reminds, “are always won in the middle.”
Case in point: From 2004 (a GOP victory) to 2006 (a GOP disaster), Republicans’ independent vote dropped 9 percent while they only lost 2 percent of voters identifying themselves as Republican.
Democrats, in their presidential defeat of 2004 and their victory of 2008, captured the identical percentage of Democrats but 3 percent more independents. That, coupled with turnout, was enough to change a loss to a win.
Right now, President Obama faces the worst of all situations: The right is fired up, the left is passive, and the middle has largely abandoned him. His policies have pushed out moderate elected Democrats, who found no place in their party to legislate from the middle.Think of U.S. Senator Evan Bayh, the centrist Indiana Democrat who generated shock waves earlier this year when he announced that he would resign; he found his ideals of balanced budgets, tax cutting and a strong national defense had no place in the Obama administration.
Bayh's decision followed a similar retirement announcement by similarly centrist senator Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.
“One of the big dilemmas for Democrats this year is just how much the president has lost the middle ground in the electorate,” said Mark Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University.
“The president's image has moved left, and it is an open question as to whether he can recapture the middle in time for his own reelection campaign in two years,” Rozell said.
Which is why so many congressional Democrats are running away from their own president.
Just last week, West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate, aired an ad showing him locked-and-loaded, firing a rifle at a copy of the Democrats’ cap-and-trade legislation and promising to do the same to “Obamacare.”
“The party candidates have to fashion a different image for themselves than that of the president,” Rozell explains. “They have to showcase how independent they are from this White House, or be ready to be swept away by the Republican tide in November.”
Brownsville’s Mayor Ward is a retired federal employee who identifies with Democrats yet is dissatisfied with the party’s disconnect: “There are good things and there are bad things about Republicans but the same can be said about Democrats.”
He says, wistfully, that he’d like to believe Democrats are just a little less bad, “But I always vote the person and the issues, never the party.”
In the final weeks of the midterm campaign, the president has launched a narrative that bears no resemblance whatsoever to his 2004 speech promising an end to the ugliness of Washington’s political division.
George Mason’s Rozell agrees that elections are won mostly in the middle, “which is why the Democrats are in such trouble this year, as the image of the president and the Democrats has moved left.”
If, as widely predicted, Republicans prevail in the midterms and take control of the U.S. House, their victory will be due not only to Democrats losing the middle ground but also to the conservative movement gaining in intensity just as the left turned passive and discontented.