Centrism may have stretched the Democratic Party to the point of identity crisis but what it has been quietly doing to the Republican Party has been downright fatal.
The current right-ward charge of the Democratic Party to more right wing views started 20 years ago when Bill Clinton ran for president on a centrist platform and won in 1992. If the political continuum were a scale from 1 – 10 with 1 being the furthest, most radical left wing and 10 being most extreme, crazy right, Clinton’s campaign was at about a 6 on this scale. He crossed the center line into republican territory and embraced ideas like free trade and welfare reform.
Certainly this would result in the democrats receiving new votes from center right voters who agreed with these policies. The gamble was whether or not this strategy would cost them too many votes on the far left of the continuum from voters who no longer felt represented to prevent a net gain. Perhaps they believed they could survive a left wing backlash. Perhaps the center was simply an honest positioning of where Clinton stood and the democrats would just have to take their chances with the far left.
It turned out that Clinton did not lose many votes on the far left that year, not enough to prevent him from winning. Why didn’t the left abandon him after he had abandoned them?
Well, those of us on the left who voted in 1992 can probably answer this better than anyone. When faced with two candidates, a republican and a centrist democrat we had basically 3 choices:
1. We could vote for a 3rd party – and lose (possibly contributing to a republican win)
2. We could sit out the election (possibly contributing to a republican win)
3. We could vote for “the lesser of two evils” and choose the centrist democrat over the republican (possibly contributing to a republican loss)
It is easy to see why most of us went ahead and supported Clinton.
With enough far left wing voters staying with the Democratic Party even as it moved right, the democrats not only possessed new real estate on on the political continuum but more real estate. Centrism allowed the democrats to gain without losing. On that scale of 1-10, the democrats now covered more than half of the scale and every step further right could grow their position even more. This is how Bill Clinton upset then favored incumbent George H.W. Bush and won the election for democrats in 1992.
The republicans were visibly riled after Clinton's win. How could they have been defeated by an opponent who stole their ideas and ran on them? How could the democrats have voted for a candidate who ran on something close to a republican platform?
I’m convinced that the whole issue of “character” and “values” had nothing to do with Clinton’s extra marital affairs and everything to do with the fact that, from the republican’s perspective, this guy had just conned his own constituency. The GOP must have been beside themselves wondering how the hell he got away with this!
But an even more pressing question for the republicans at that point had to be how the hell could they defend themselves against this? They couldn’t exactly say that Clinton was wrong when he was making their own points better than they were. The best they could do was attack Clinton’s character. It must have been maddening for them.
Initially they attempted to compete with the new centrist democrats at their own game. But as 1996 GOP candidate Bob Dole found out, in presidential elections at least, the republicans do not match up well against democrats in the battle for the center. Issue by issue, the GOP discovered that moving left destabilized their base ideologically and left their message confused.
For example, Dole’s campaign platform of 1996 openly invited the participation of pro-choice politicians and voters, a pretty straightforward centrist move and as good an indication as any that he was prepared to take Clinton on center. Unfortunately for Dole however, this could never work. The two opposing positions on the issue of abortion are not only different in their viewpoint, but different in their approach to the issue. And this difference illustrates the problem republicans had in moving left.
The pro-choice position is, if you break it down, a compromise. It does not take a position on whether abortion itself is right or wrong; rather it takes a position on the government’s role in the decision. As such it is a position which can include both those who think this procedure is necessary and those who think it is unconscionable because either position is the individual’s choice and should be protected against government interference.
By contrast the pro-life position takes a definitive side on what is right or wrong regarding abortion. Specifically that abortion is murder and that government must treat it as a crime. Clearly then, a traditionally pro-life party would have trouble opening its doors to pro-choice participants as a matter of policy. To even try implies a compromise on the issue of abortion which, if they believed in compromise, would technically make them pro-choice. It didn't work.
This peculiar dynamic demonstrates a certain flexibility in left wing positions which does not exist on the right and helps to explain why the democrats have been able to move to the center and still win elections, while the republicans only shed votes when they attempt to do the same.
When Karl Rove’s response in 2000 was to abandon the battle for the center and move the republicans further to the right, he was called a genius for his efforts and there was talk of a “permanent republican majority.”
Moving right expanded the republican base by appealing to those on the far right that had been considered too far out on the fringe. Moving right copied the centrist model of gaining without losing by forcing moderate republicans to choose between the lesser of two evils and remain loyal to their party. Also, and this pains me to write but I believe it to be true, Rove’s moving the republicans to the right was a way of calling the democrats bluff, daring the democrats to follow them as far right as they were willing to go. Presumably Rove was waiting for the democrats to finally cry uncle. He certainly underestimated us there.
With all this focus on the right hand extremes of both parties it has naturally been assumed that there is endless room to grow on the right. As if the entire non-voting population up to now has consisted of no one but the most right wing among us. This is not at all clear. Certainly recent Tea Party rally numbers would indicate that the well Rove tapped was perhaps not that deep.
Moreover as the democrats move further and further into republican territory they do significant damage to the republican brand. The further right the democrats go, the more republicans continue to lose propriety over positions that their traditional voters identify with. A party is defined by its positions and is distinguished from other parties based on these differing views. Without this propriety, republicans have an identity problem. With no ability to move left, they must keep marching ever further to the right if only to find free political ground with room enough to stand.
But like prey whose predators are attached to them by a leash, as they run to the right the democrats follow close on their heals. After all, centrism is relative and will continue to adjust its position based on the positions of the two parties it stands between.
20 years after the democrats began using the centrist strategy the republicans have been pushed completely outside the mainstream and have no viable way to come back. Meanwhile the democrats still have no competition on the left (for now) and are therefore in possession of most if not all of the political main stream.