Over at Quick and the Ed, Sara Mead makes a good point about the broader frames and perceptions that politicians project because of various issues. This is especially true with an issue like education. Despite how much they purport to care about education in polls, when pressed for specific answers, generally fewer than one in ten voters tell pollsters that a national candidate’s position on education issues would cause them to change their vote. But that does not mean education does not matter? No. Substance matters, and it matters politically because a candidate can use the issue to send signals that they’re a moderate reformer as Bush did in 2000. Conversely, it can reinforce negative perceptions of a candidate as it arguably did for Kerry to some extent in 2004.
Couple of takeaways for 2008. First, because most voters are not as strident as the activists about these issues politicians should temper their rhetoric accordingly. For Democrats, school vouchers are a key example. I’m not a fan and many/most Democratic pols are not fans, but it’s better to say why in measured tones than to castigate voucher proponents and accuse them of seeking to destroy the public schools etc…Besides, are urban parents who understandably want vouchers out to destroy the public schools? It’s somewhat analogous to abortion politics. Reasonable people can agree to disagree and politicians who, while not backing off of their own beliefs, send a signal of tolerance of divergent views are in a stronger position with the general electorate.
Second, as is usually the case in politics, the Republican and Democratic positions do not move independently of each other. The ability of Republicans to use the same play as Bush used in 2000, presenting a candidate as a moderate because of their education positions, is related to whether or not Democrats leave the center open. Somewhat conveniently, though, the centrist pragmatic consensus around standards, public sector choice, and investing in education is pretty good politics as well as pretty good policy. Which party will claim that hill first? I’d handicap it as harder for the Rs but still doable and easier for the Ds right now, especially one who is willing to weather a little heat (see below).