Election 2010: The great middle is not angry, but frustrated
MIDDLETOWN, Pa. -- Ann Quinn is in her red camp chair watching her 10-year-old son at Friday afternoon soccer practice. There's a bin of blue and gold hats in the back of her SUV and a big flag. When she isn't working full time at the local Navy ...
MIDDLETOWN, Pa. -- Ann Quinn is in her red camp chair watching her 10-year-old son at Friday afternoon soccer practice. There's a bin of blue and gold hats in the back of her SUV and a big flag. When she isn't working full time at the local Navy base, she is Cubmaster for her son's pack and classroom volunteer at his school.
If all that isn't enough, there is an election coming up next month and her husband, John, comes home most nights all spun up about what a lousy job President Obama and the Democrats are doing. She likes Obama and the Democrats. But she's tired from juggling work, parenting and cooking, and voting in these dispiriting times seems like just one more chore.
Ann feels like she's stuck at a ping-pong match. Wasn't it only yesterday the Democrats were promising to shake things up in Washington? Now it's the Republicans, and it looks like control of the House and maybe the Senate is about to change hands.
When she looks at Washington, this is what she sees: Nobody compromises. Nobody watches out for people like her, people too busy working, selling Cub Scout popcorn and pulling coupons off the Internet to go around yelling about which party did what to ruin America.
"I try to be informed, but there's no one out there I love. They can throw stones at the other guy, and as long as they win, they are happy. Nobody wants to govern," she says, one eye on Patrick running around the field. "It's just been so disappointing."
For all the sound and fury of the "Tea Party" movement, the chorus of marchers descending on the Capitol and the nightly racket on cable TV, there are untold millions of Americans who are not angry so much as frustrated, anxious and resigned that, whatever happens Nov. 2, little the politicians say or do will change their stressed-out, stretched-thin lives.
Call them the great middle: voters like Ann Quinn, disgusted with Washington, nervous about the future but so busy getting by day-to-day that the election is almost an afterthought.
A survey published last month in Newsweek found that self-described angry voters -- the ones grabbing all the attention -- make up about 23 percent of the electorate. Most of them are Republicans.
As for the rest, many of them are not terribly partisan, though they may lean toward one party over the other. Immigration, earmarks, same-sex marriage -- those things that exercise activists -- are of little interest. Mainly, what they want is for lawmakers to stop bickering and address the problems they deal with on a daily basis, "putting food on the table, gas in their car and ... getting the kids through college," said Democratic pollster Margie Omero.
"They feel they're living on another planet in D.C.," said Alex Bratty, a Republican pollster who partnered with Omero on a series of focus groups with women around the country they dubbed "Wal-Mart" moms to capture their straitened circumstances. "The way they see it is a lot of partisanship, not getting anything done. They ask, 'Why can't they compromise?' "
The Quinns live in Middletown, a pretty suburb of broad lawns and quiet cul-de-sacs just over the South Bridge from Harrisburg. Ann, 55, grew up here in the shadow of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in a houseful of Democrats. John, 56, grew up here, too, in a houseful of Republicans.
In 15 years of marriage they have never agreed on anything political. When she put a John Kerry sign on the lawn in 2004, he ran out and got a George W. Bush sign to plant right next to it. But when it comes to the important things -- Patrick, improvements to their two-story Dutch colonial house, which car to buy -- they put their differences aside and did what needed to be done. If they can figure out how to make it work, why can't Washington?
"Nobody seems to be capable of saying what we should do to solve the country's problems," Ann says. "I feel they have all been bought off. Who is the lobbyist for the American people?"
The election is less than three weeks away and John can't wait to vote. That's why Democrats are in such peril. Many of the party faithful are disinterested, if not disenchanted. The Democrats' foes -- whether Republicans like John, independents, Tea Party followers or people just plain ticked-off -- can't wait to vent.
"I'm scared to death of taxes. All the social problems the Democrats want to remedy with taxes," John says, waving a letter from that day's mail notifying him that his property tax bill is going up because he had the good sense to fix his leaky basement. Government with its hands in his pockets again.
When Ann considers the ballot choices for Pennsylvania's open U.S. Senate seat, she gets discouraged. Pat Toomey, the Republican and Tea Party favorite vs. Joe Sestak, the renegade Democrat who's promised to change the way Washington works. She's heard that one before.
"Toomey's a nutcase," she says, turned off by his strongly conservative stance on abortion, same-sex marriage and other social issues. "And Sestak. Am I crazy about Sestak? No."
But neither is she sure she wants to hand the reins back to the GOP, who she believes led the country into two wars, a vast, unpaid-for expansion of Medicare and a near-depression without a word or worry about deficit spending.
Suddenly, it seems Republicans have rediscovered the horror of red ink and believe cut, cut, cut is the only way to balance the budget. But at the same time, they won't force the rich to shoulder a bigger share of the burden.
"Taxes in and of themselves are not an evil thing. They pay for things like highways and education and services we all use," Ann says, out of earshot of the other soccer parents.
"You have to watch who you talk politics with around here," she whispers, but she's rolling now. "If I hear one more thing about government waste, I'm going to scream. Government isn't evil. I work for the government."
Ann is a civilian operations research analyst for the Navy base in nearby Mechanicsburg; her job is to figure out what parts the Navy needs to buy and repair for its ships and submarines.
Practice is over. She packs the camp chairs in the back of the spotless, fully paid-for 2007 Toyota RAV4 she plans to keep for 10 years.
It's dinner time. Patrick is starving. The Quinns take a table at a little Italian place with ESPN. They live carefully, but comfortably. Dinner out now and then. A vacation once a year. Center balcony seats for "The Lion King."
The election comes up. If you don't vote, you can't complain. That's Ann's motto. So she will, but not with the passion of six years ago when the war made her so mad she worked a phone bank for Kerry, her first campaign ever. When he lost, she cried. She wondered if it was menopause.
By the time Obama came along, her aging parents needed her and she was too busy to volunteer. But when he won, she was thrilled. He was smart. She didn't expect him to save the world, just find the middle. Now look. Back to ping-pong. There is no middle. She doesn't blame him.
"People want to pin Obama to the wall. Give him a chance," she says. "Today it's 'You don't get it. Boom. Change.' So we put the Republicans back in and then go back to the Democrats? Where are we going?"
John doesn't have any problem blaming Obama, though, now that he thinks of it, he's not all that crazy about Bush anymore either.
"We've had two lousy presidents in a row," he says, twirling a forkful of linguine.
One thing they know for sure, whoever gets elected to Congress will spend millions doing it, and then half their time in office raising money so they can do it again. They'll make sure their big donors get what they want. And the American people?
"They'll get the crumbs," Ann says, passing John the bread basket. On that, they agree.