Political commentator Stuart Rothenberg sees sharp partisan divides and unwillingness to compromise as the political landscape that lies ahead. And he expects another big “wave” election in 2012, in which voters focus less on individual candidates and more on their frustration with the national direction.
“The country is rather pessimistic and fearful, and certainly worried,” he said, speaking March 29 at a packed Konover Auditorium in the Alan R. Bennett Lecture Series. “We continue to be a very divided society.”
Rothenberg, who earned his Ph.D. in political science from UConn in 1976, is editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, covering national and gubernatorial politics, and a columnist for the Capitol Hill newspaper, Roll Call. He has also been an election night analyst for the PBS “Newshour” and CBS News, and he was a political analyst for CNN for more than a decade.
He describes himself as a political handicapper who is immersed in the nitty-gritty of politics.
“If I happen to say something nice about a politician,” he said, “I’m just talking about their politics – whether they’re positioning themselves correctly.”
Rothenberg tracks two things – Presidential approval ratings, and surveys – asking, “Is the country headed in the right direction or is it on the wrong track?”
That “temperature” of the electorate question is crucial, he said, because most elections are straightforward contests between change and continuity.
Currently, the country is pretty evenly divided between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, he said. Despite an uptick in bipartisan behavior in December and January, when the tax extension was agreed to and the Tucson shootings brought people together, the mood is again highly divisive.
Congress faces the immediate problems of funding the government for the rest of the fiscal year, voting to raise the debt limit, and considering how entitlement programs figure into the long-term budget scenario, he noted.
These are particular challenges for Republicans, who added many Tea Party adherents to their ranks in the 2010 elections. His interviews of those new to Congress – he interviews about 150 candidates an election cycle – uncovered an absolute unwillingness to compromise, which is “surprisingly refreshing” but also reflects a lack of understanding of how legislation passes, Rothenberg said.
“The Tea Party folks may hold the balance on whether there is a government shutdown,” he predicted.
The Tea Party will be a considerable force between now and 2012, he said. In that upcoming election, 23 Senate seats now held by Democrats – several of whom have said they will retire – are up for grabs, while only 10 Republican-held seats will be up for election.
“The Republicans have a pretty good chance of taking over the Senate,” he said.
Rothenberg would not predict whether President Obama will be re-elected, though.
“Have people not figured out that events matter?” he said. Politics is now reactive: “whatever happened five minutes ago is the most important thing.” While the 2010 Republican gains are actually to Obama’s advantage if the Republicans are seen as too extreme, one event can easily sway how voters judge a President, he said.
Democrats will continue to hold on to Senate seats in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, he forecast. In these states, in order to gain in national elections, “Republicans don’t just need a wave here, they need a double tsunami,” he said.
Rothenberg blamed the electorate for the problem of inaction on the federal deficit and budget. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed upwards of 75 percent of voters not being willing to cut Social Security, Medicare, and K-12 education, he said.
Rothenberg gave a nod to emeritus faculty member George Cole in the audience, who was one of his political science professors, and to Professor Garry Clifford, who was on his Ph.D. committee. His adviser was the late Norman Kogan, and he was a teaching assistant for emeritus professor Fred Turner.