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Beware politics' evil twins

By John P. Avlon, CNN Contributor
  • John Avlon says "overreach and backlash" are a repeated feature of U.S. political cycles
  • He says parties see electoral victory as sweeping mandate and adopt extreme positions
  • Voters, especially independents, put off by this, he says; it slows government, as in Wisconsin
  • Avlon: Battleground for politics is in center; if polarization keeps up, Obama looks good to win

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America."

(CNN) -- Overreach and backlash: They are the prime drivers of politics in our time, pushing the pendulum swing back and forth between the parties faster and faster.

We've seen the cycle before, and now we may be seeing it again in Congress and state capitols from Wisconsin to New Hampshire and beyond.

Here's how it works. One party comes into power. Its more extreme politicians, encouraged by activists, willfully misinterpret their election victory as an ideological mandate. They overreach legislatively, their arrogance alienates the moderate majority of Americans in the process and provokes a massive backlash in the next election.

There was the Bill Clinton-driven Democratic landslide of 1992 -- supposedly the beginning of a baby-boomer repudiation of Reagan conservatism. That lasted until 1994's Republican Revolution.

This supposed sea change ended with Clinton's re-election in 1996, and when Republicans overreached in the Monica-gate impeachment proceedings, they lost so many seats in 1998 that House Speaker Newt Gingrich resigned.

After a series of Bush-era corruption scandals (Jack Abramoff), social conservative appeals (Terri Schaivo), partisan hackishness (Monica Goodling and the U.S. attorney firings) and Iraq, Democrats catapulted back into congressional power as a check on the arrogance of one-party Republican rule.

When Obama swept into office in 2008, Democratic strategists started talking demographic shifts that would ensure 40 years in power. Their unified reign lasted two years -- less, if you consider the backlash from independent voters who opposed the post-stimulus explosion of deficits and debt, and later the health care bill.

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Republican gains in 2010 were unprecedented, not just in congressional seats but also 17 legislatures where they gained control. But there are costs that come with conservative populism -- an ideological absolutism that plays to the base and can seem absurd or irrelevant to the electorate at large. In Congress, the message of 2010 election seemed clear -- focus on the economy and reduce the deficit and the debt. During the campaign, social issues were de-emphasized.

But the first votes of the new conservative Congress were the somewhat token repeal of health care reform, followed by a series of anti-abortion bills.

The debate on the economy has centered on cuts from the roughly 12% of the budget that represents discretionary domestic spending, but votes to defund the United Nations or cut PBS and the Environmental Protection Agency are not likely to provoke a better response than they did during the last Republican Revolution. Gunning for Big Bird doesn't play well with soccer moms.

The game of chicken with the government shutdown brought back bad old memories.

Now, government operations have been extended for at least a few weeks in a compromise, but no less than Newt Gingrich is counseling the benefits of a shutdown. And no one likes to talk about the prospect more than congressional Democrats, who see in that extreme action the seeds of a comeback, courtesy of overreach and backlash.

In the statehouses, the situation is much the same. In Wisconsin, newly elected Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to reform rules on collective bargaining for some public sector unions drove 14 Democrats to Illinois and others to drum circles in the capitol rotunda.

Here, both sides are courting the forces of overreach and backlash -- Democrats by feeding the protests and Walker by refusing to negotiate to date. This is not a good first impression of Republican legislative rule in a state that has long trended center-left. At the end of the day, voters want their government to work. Special interests and ideology are usually obstacles to that reasonable expectation.

But it's not just Wisconsin. Take a look at New Hampshire.

The always-important first primary state saw Republicans take back control of the statehouse after a 2006 loss. One of their first actions upon taking office was a vote to allow guns on state capitol grounds --one interpretation of the state motto of "live free or die" but unlikely to inspire confidence in the independent voters who outnumber Republicans or Democrats there.

Down South, the actions from conservative state legislators have ranged from proposals to have South Carolina mint its own currency to Texas' plan to allow students to carry firearms at college. This all might brings whoops and hollers from states' rights activists, but it will seem extreme to most voters in the vital center.

In the end, the independent voters who swung about 17% for Democrats in 2006 and then roughly 17% for Republicans in 2010 were not being fickle. They were sending a consistent message.

They oppose the ideological arrogance and legislative overreach that comes with one-party rule. They like the checks and balances of divided government, believing that it can constrain hyperpartisan impulses and pursue the common ground policies of fiscal responsibility.

But today the two parties are more polarized than ever. Ideological arrogance is encouraged -- the peer pressure that comes from partisan media and apologist columnists who condemn compromise. The dysfunction of government gets worse.

Main street, main-stream voters sense that the inmates are running the asylum and vote to clear it out. More and more Americans register independent.

Back-of-the-napkin math suggests that left unchecked, this cycle makes President Obama look strong in 2012. But there is a deeper dynamic at work, memorably expressed by the mid-20th century newspaper columnist James Reston:

"The decisive battle ground of American politics lies in the center and cannot be captured from either of the extremes, and any party that defies this principle does not improve its chances of national power or even effective opposition but precisely the opposite."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.