Mug's Game

When Will Democrats Stop Allowing the GOP to Define the Political Center?

In 2008, the largest number of voters in U.S. history gave the Democrats their largest share of the presidential vote in forty-four years and big majorities in the House and Senate. How did Republicans react? They held their ideological ground, refused to give an inch to the new president, and insisted that persistent opposition would eventually yield them victory. And on November 2, it did. Yet now that Democrats have suffered a setback—in an election, it should be said, involving many fewer voters than the big battle two years ago—they are being counseled to do the opposite of what the Republicans did, especially by Republicans.

Democrats who stand up to say they were right to reform health care and stimulate a staggering economy are told they "don't get it" and are "in denial." Liberals who refuse to let one election loss alter their commitments are dismissed as "doubling down" on a bad bet.

President Barack Obama made the word "audacity" popular, but conservative Republicans practice it.

Mainstream commentary typically bends to the more audacious side. As a result, there was far less middle-of-the-road advice in 2008 urging Republicans to move to the center than there were warnings to Obama not to read too much into his victory. The United States, we were told, was still a "center-right" country. The actual election result didn't seem to matter back then.

Funny, isn't it? When progressives win, they are told to moderate their hopes. When conservatives win, progressives are told to retreat.

Worse, Democrats tend to internalize the views of their opponents. Already, some moderate Democrats are claiming that all would have been well if Obama had not tried to reform health care or "overreached" in other ways. Never mind that Obama's biggest single mistake (beyond the administration's projection that unemployment would peak at around 8 percent) was giving in to Senate moderates and not demanding the much bigger stimulus plan a weak economy plainly needed.

In fact, moderate Democrats would do better calling attention to how extreme and out of touch the conservative program actually is. Moderates should be more offended than anyone that the GOP's ideological obsessions (health-care repeal, tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation) have little connection to solving the country's problems, particularly the economic difficulties in the electorally pivotal Midwest.

The best news for Democrats is that the Republicans' fixation on repealing the health-care law will give its supporters a tenth inning--an unexpected second chance to win the struggle for public opinion.

The most politically potent attack on the health-care effort was not on the plan itself. It was the argument that Democrats should have spent less time on this bill and more on job creation. Every moment the Republicans devote to destroying this year's reform opens them up to exactly the same criticism.

Moreover, reopening the health-care debate will allow the law's supporters to defend its particulars. What, exactly, do the Republicans want to repeal? Tax breaks helping businesses cover their employees? Individual tax credits? (Yes, repealing the health bill would be a big tax increase.) Protections for people with pre-existing conditions, or for adult children under age twenty-six?

And Republicans are showing who and what they really care about by their other big priority: making sure the Bush tax cuts are extended for the wealthy in the coming lame-duck congressional session that Democrats will still control.

Even in this year's very conservative electorate, only 18 percent said cutting taxes should be the highest priority of the next Congress. Only 40 percent said the Bush tax cuts should be extended for all, including the wealthy; 51 percent were opposed to this, including 36 percent who favored extending them only to those earning under $250,000 a year (Obama's position), and an additional 15 percent who opposed extending them at all.

Yes, the moderate, middle-of-the-road position is the one held by the president. Why sell it out? Raising the $250,000 ceiling a bit might be called a compromise. Any wholesale extension would be a shameful and abject capitulation that would just prove how easy it is to bully Democrats.

Give Republicans credit for this: They don't chase the center, they try to move it. Democrats can play a loser's game of scrambling after a center being pushed ever rightward. Or they can stand their ground and show how far their opponents are from moderate, problem-solving governance. Why should Democrats take Republican advice that Republicans themselves would never be foolish enough to follow? 

(c) 2010, Washington Post Writers Group


Related: Loud & Unclear and No Compromise? by the Editors

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).

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