After their 2008 electoral sweep, many Democrats ridiculed Republicans for continuing, even intensifying, in playing to their base. Gleeful Democratic pundits commented that Republicans were out of touch with the mainstream values of the electorate. The Republicans were forcing moderates out of their party. Moving further and further to the right seemed laughably misguided for a national strategy.
And yet…. We saw the popularity of an invincibly captivating president with consistently moderate politics evaporate from 76% job approval rating in February, 2009 to 49% by January, 2010 (CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll). We saw President Obama’s signature effort to reform the U.S. healthcare system drop in public support from 59% to 42% over the last year (Family Foundation Kaiser Health Tracking Poll), with support of a public plan to compete with private insurance plummeting from 76% to 36%* from October to December last year (ABC News/Washingtion Post Poll). Now, with the upset election of a Republican senator in Democratic Massachusetts, we hear many Democrats nervously back-peddling on health care reform. Even Barack Obama’s former senate seat in Democratic Illinois is widely viewed as a potential pick up for Republicans this year.
How is it that a Republican party that appeared to be eating itself into oblivion has so quickly re-emerged to threaten the ever-so-brief Democratic majority in national government?
This is not a new phenomenon. After all, we are the same country that followed up an election of Jimmy Carter by hiring Ronald Reagan to play the President. Furthermore, many moderate Democrats who voted for Reagan would vote for Jesse Jackson in the following Democratic primary. Now, Jackson and Reagan did not have much in common politically. But they did share one important attribute: both of them spoke with believably strong conviction. While polls have always showed that Americans disagree with Republicans on the issues, people will vote Republican if the candidate seems to genuinely stand for something**.
Meanwhile, Democrats cater their message to court moderates. What do we perceive these candidates to stand for? Moderation? While moderation may have its intellectual appeal, it doesn’t normally stir the passions of voters. I have attended many political rallies, and I have yet to hear people chant, “Moderation! Moderation!”
If history is any judge, the national Democratic Party, chastened by the sudden success of right wing Republicans, will take away the same losing message they always do. Instead of seeing that it was the Republicans’ move to their base that saved them, they will see it as the Republican’s move to the right. They will ill-advisedly try to compete with Republicans on Republican terms. This will fail, as it nearly always does. What right-minded Republican will vote for a fake Republican when they can vote for the real thing?
The message the Democrats would be well advised to take home is that the public like politicians who stand for something. It’s less important what you stand for in U.S. politics than how convincingly you deliver your message. Or, in the words of Sleepy LaBeef, “It ain’t what you eat, it’s the way how you chew it.”
*Many polls still have this number in territory above 50% – it seems to depend on how the question is worded.
**A little demonizing of the Democratic candidate and a few dirty election tricks also tend to help.